Kennedy: the end of High Liberalism
By Gwydion M. Williams
I’ve always been impressed by coincidences. Some are pure accidents, like the similar sounds of island and isle (which led Dr Johnson to add the ‘s’ in island in the mistaken belief that they had a common origin). But others are full of meaning, such as the ‘fit’ between Africa and South America, long ignored until the idea of continental drift was finally proved on the basis of other data.
I’ve argued before that the Cuban Missile Crisis showed a dangerous incompetence on behalf of both Kennedy and Khrushchev. The world came as close as it ever came to a nuclear holocaust in October 1962; Kennedy was mysteriously murdered in November 1963; Khrushchev was removed from office in October 1964, the only leader of a sovereign Leninist party to be removed from office. (Various East European bosses got removed, but only with Moscow’s approval. And Khrushchev’s handling of the missile crisis was one of the cited reasons for his fall.)
But as many have said, Oswald was a very unlikely person for serious conspirators to use. I did wonder if it had been some sort of stunt, a poor shot with an inaccurate rifle intended to generate some good publicity for a Democratic president whose support for Civil Rights was costing him the votes of Southern racists. But that would mean that Oswald managed to hit twice while trying to miss, not very likely.
There I left it, until I saw a magazine reference to a theory that Kennedy was accidentally shot by one of his own bodyguards. To accidentally shoot someone by a random shot several yards away seemed ludicrously improbable, but my interest was re-ignited. And I noticed a point I’d overlooked before—Kennedy was killed in the same month as another President, President Diem of South Vietnam, cold-bloodedly murdered by South Vietnamese rivals after a coup that Kennedy had approved and that the US ambassador had helped organise.
Coups in the 1960s were a US specialism, coups and assassinations destroyed a great many attempts at an independent-minded Third World. Such as the Belgian Congo, where the USA fixed for a democratically elected leader to be replaced and then murdered by rivals who were obedient to US mining interest. The possibility of the UN establishing some sort of basic law-and-order on a global scale was effectively ended then. It was never likely to be an authority over the Superpowers, but it could have enforced election results and put down coups if the USA had wanted this. And they didn’t want it, nor do they want it now.
Much more historically significant was the Indonesian coup of 1965, which tipped the balance in the Third World. And it seems likely that the initial left-wing coup was a dummy coup, pretending to seize power so as to give the army an excuse to take over and massacre an Indonesian Communist Party that had done well in free elections. In the case of Diem the process maybe backfired, but a similar scam did work in the Philippines in 1983, ousting Marcos in favour of democracy at a time when democracy was likely to be pro-globalisation.
Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie, much the best account of the Vietnam war as a whole, explains that the idea behind the coup was that South Vietnam would function better without Diem, but in fact it was even more corrupt and sluggish. Diem’s killing was followed by a massive Viet-Cong offensive that wiped away most of the apparent gains. Neil Sheehan argues that it had been long prepared and would have happened anyway, this may be true, but Diem had represented something substantial within Vietnamese society and was not quite the puppet his successors were.
Oliver Stone’s film JFK includes a statement that Kennedy had been pulling Americans out of Vietnam at the time he was shot. Now I knew perfectly well that the Kennedy brothers were the American equivalent of European Social-Democrats, combining a willingness to accept radical reform with a hard-line opposition to Leninist Communism. (Robert Kennedy first came to prominence as an assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy. So I disbelieved that Kennedy had been preparing to accept defeat in Vietnam, just as I disbelieved the specifics of the plot-theory that Stone championed.
A Bright Shining Lie happens to mention the planned withdraw, and puts it in its proper context. Kennedy had been getting contradictory reports about the success or failure of the USA’s initial indirect intervention, so much that he called in two of his advisors and asked them if they had in fact been visiting the same country. But Vietnam was marginal to his interest then, and when he was told that things were going splendidly and that 1000 advisors could be withdrawn, he was happy to rubber-stamp it. Had Kennedy known what was really going on in Vietnam, it is likely he would have jumped in harder and sooner than Johnson did.
The coup and murder of Diem was followed by a massive Communist offensive that was certainly helped by the confusion in authority. Possibly it would have been much the same anyway, as A Bright Shining Lie argues. But it could easily be interpreted as a consequence of the betrayal of an ally. And Bright Shining Lie also records that Kennedy was favouring a policy of clandestine raids on the North at a conference on Vietnam held on the 20th November. A policy that could easily have escalated into an actual invasion of the North and an ever-escalating war, with the possibility of nuclear conflict resulting. In fact came to nothing, apart from helping to spark the Tonkin Gulf incident. But that was with Johnson in charge, a man whose background in the US Senate made him think naturally in terms of caution and compromise.
“I guess we believed our own publicity—Asian guerrillas did not stand a chance against U.S. Marines—as we believed in all the myths created by that most articulate and elegant mythmaker, John Kennedy. If he was the King of Camelot, then we were his knights and Vietnam our crusade.” (Page 66, A Rumour of War, Philip Caputo, Book Club Associates 1977.) Most sources see no real change between Kennedy and Johnson. The decisive year was 1965, when the US had a choice between a limited defeat and a big escalation. Diem had been an ally rather than a puppet. The US under Kennedy had assumed that removing a bad leader would allow something ‘normal’ to emerge, but discovered that the alternatives were even less to the taste of the USA’s 1960s technocrats.
Bright Shining Lie is naïve about the overall geopolitical context. It is undoubtedly true that the US could have made a compromise with Hanoi, accepting that Ho Chi Minh’s people were the core of Vietnamese nationalism and could be a counterweight against the Communist Chinese. That might have been the policy if they’d wanted to preserve the status quo, but this is not US policy and never has been. If the USA must take notice of the outside world, then its policy is to ‘normalise’ it, turn it into a weak copy of US forms. In the 1960s, there was a basic desire to herd all of the Third World into the US camp, to suppress the diverse ‘Neutralist’ option as much as the rival Leninist Globalisation. US behaviour since the fall of the Soviet system has confirmed that they were always pushing their own version of globalisation and that freedom of choice was just a slogan. ‘You can choose what you want, so long as you want what we choose for you’. This was the policy, but in South Vietnam it was coming unstuck.
Removing Diem did not work, and may have been a profound error. And if we’re thinking in connection with the killing of Kennedy, the question is not so much what was true, as what some right-wing clique within the intelligence services might have believed to be true. They see efforts to undermine a loyal ally in South Vietnam, culminating in his murder. This is immediately followed by a Communist upsurge that wipes away the gains that appeared to have been made over the last few years. And they remember that Kennedy came frighteningly close to starting a world war the previous year, and then before that had allowed the mass slaughter of anti-Communist forces at the Bay of Pigs, refusing air support even though this would have involved vastly fewer risks than the later stand-off over missiles that had no real strategic importance, just a propaganda value. So they could have seen Kennedy as a dangerous bungler who swung unpredictably from weakness to risky aggressiveness. Might some small clique within the intelligence services have decided that they had to get rid of him?
The other issue was Civil Rights, the breaking of the racism that had been part of US traditions from the very beginning. This could have been seen as an attack on an American fundamental—and indeed, the system lost public trust once it stopped supporting the racial hierarchies that large numbers of US citizens continue to believe in.
As a serious liberal, Kennedy could and did use state power to enforce his own version of liberty. Where state power was forcefully employed, integration succeeded, most notably in the US military, which started insisting that non-white officers be treated according to their rank rather than their skin colour. Elsewhere, unfortunately, ‘affirmative action’ was called off far too soon, with Richard Nixon beginning the insidious process of defending racism on the basis of libertarian principles that he clearly did not believe (since he always ignored them when it suited him).
Those are the possible motives. But what actually happened on that fatal day in Dallas?
The Warren Commission view is that Oswald fired three shots, with the first hitting the President in the neck and wounding Governor John Connally, the second missing and the third inflicting a fatal head wound. Oswald was in no position to comment, having been murdered by a strip-joint operator called Jack Ruby, who had unexpectedly been given a lot of access to Oswald by a friendly police force.
Apart from the surprising number of deaths of people associated with the Kennedy killing, most criticism has concentrated on the first bullet, the so-called ‘magic bullet’ that seemed to have followed an impossible trajectory. A different line is taken in Bonar Menninger’s Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK, which gives an account of the work of ballistics expert Howard Donahue. Donahue adjusts the line-ups of Kennedy and Connally and concludes that the ‘magic bullet’ was real enough, and that Oswald fired it. But he rates it as the second bullet, with the first having missed but given Kennedy a minor injury with the ricochet. There is indeed some evidence that it was the second bullet that wounded Kennedy and Connally, and the Warren Commission agreed that it was not entirely certain that it was the first shot.
But what about the third shot, the one that gave Kennedy a fatal head-wound? According to Donahue, a secret service agent accidentally fires a shot from an AR-15 and this inflicts the head wound. Though he also reckons that the neck wound would also have been fatal, which is not the standard opinion.
As I said, I disbelieved such a neat accident. But then I suddenly saw a possible scenario that would explain a lot of the anomalies, including the odd reaction of the Kennedy clan themselves. There is no single scenario that sensibly explains all that was going on, but perhaps there was more than one plot being hatched.
Plan A is was never intended to be a successful assassination attempt. The idea was to arrange for a crazy act by an apparent left-winger. Oswald with his Russian wife and peculiar history would fit the bill, and he would have been known to some of the local Mafia, as the film JFK notes. The man’s pro-Castro connections might be expected to win Kennedy support where he desperately needed it. Oswald also has his own political-philosophical ideas that have hitherto been ignored, and a failed assassin will be listened to much more seriously. On this reading, Plan A was promoted by pro-Kennedy interests, and with no intention of shedding any blood. It is probably approved or even initiated by the President himself, who was not short of physical courage and who must have been very anxious at the prospect of ending up as a one-term President, a small footnote in history.
Since the 1960s, it has emerged that JFK’s father Joe Kennedy had made a bargain with the Chicago Mob to get their support for his son’s bid for the Presidency 1960. The standard view now is that Joe Kennedy made his money as a bootlegger, before he moved into financial trickery and then politics (he was US ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940, “where he advised Roosevelt against joining in World War II, believing the Germans would imminently defeat Britain” (Microsoft Encarta). And it’s said also that Joe Kennedy during his bootlegging days had offended Detroit’s Purple Gang and was only saved because Capone’s organisation smoothed the matter over. Courage, recklessness and a disregard for the normal rules were part of the Kennedy family tradition.
That’s Plan A, a desperate attempt to win an election that Kennedy looked likely to lose. But there is also a Plan B, hatched maybe in the twilight world between gangsters and the security services. I won’t try and speculate about who in particular, how much can any outside know? Popular tales are full of disinformation and misinformation—we learn now that ‘Machine-gun Kelly’ was actually a minor criminal whose reputation got absurdly inflated. Whereas Machine-gun Jack McGurn was an authentic tough guy, Al Capone’s bodyguard and probably the organiser of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. And that his real name was Vincent Gebardi, and that he was born in New York. And was also born in Chicago, and it seems he made his name avenging the death of two different fathers on two distinct gangs of rival mobsters. The information comes from dishonest people, in a world where secrecy and lies are the norm, so really who knows?
We may never know who was in ‘Group B’, the people who organised and carried through Plan B. I doubt it was anyone very senior in either Mafia or CIA or whatever: a group of mavericks, possibly. Someone finds out about Plan A and is outraged, but also sees it as an opportunity. The phoney assassination can be made real and it is relatively safe, because Plan B cannot be understood without admitting at least part of Plan A, which discredits the Kennedy family themselves.
On this assumption, an extra piece of the puzzle suddenly fitted—the odd attitude of the Kennedy clan, and why they make no open accusations about the puzzling death of the leading man. I heard somewhere that Robert Kennedy’s line was that he needed to be in the White House before the truth could be found, but this makes little sense. US politics is set up so that voters can harass the legislators, and both voters and legislators can harass the government. Robert Kennedy as a senator was splendidly placed to get at the truth, if the whole truth was what he wanted. But to reveal just the chosen Kennedy version of the truth, the power and patronage of the US presidency would have been necessary.
Plan A maybe involves three shots, maybe one gunmen for each, none of them Oswald. You can’t be certain a bad shot will miss, and if the Donahue interpretation was correct, Oswald would have gone way beyond Plan A with his second shot. Shooting at random is too risky, you might hit an innocent target and create a grievance that some pushy Investigative Reporter will take up. But shooting to miss could produce a suspicious pattern, three close-bunched shots well away from the supposed target. So let’s assume three gunman, call them A, B and C. Each with a rifle similar to Oswald’s, and maybe it has been treated specially to leave the same ballistic signature. And each with a designated target area that will be close enough to look good without hurting anyone.
Gunman A does just what he’s supposed to: fires a shot that’s close enough for a decent ricochet, and Kennedy calls out “my God, I’m hit”, as one witness reported and as would be in line with Plan A (as well as the Donahue interpretation). But Gunman B has become part of Plan B, he is really after Kennedy and manages to shoot him through the throat. Gunman C sees that something has gone terribly wrong, and does not fire at all. This scenario explains the anomaly of Oswald leaving evidence of three shots, but people in the book depositary heard only two. It’s also possible that there was no Gunman C and no plans for a third shot, but it is planted later to make the story look better.
Kennedy has been hit, but it is not a definitely lethal wound, and so the ‘second string’ comes into play. Maybe a bodyguard has become part of Plan B, and has been briefed to fire a lethal shot in the confusion, explicable as an accident if it ever comes out. Or maybe someone else has been placed to fire a killer shot for which the bodyguards can be blamed if necessary. The whole aim of Group B is confusion, so why not the sound of a shot from the famous ‘grassy knoll’, where no gun or gunman was ever found and where there may have been nothing more lethal than a concealed loudspeaker.
Because of Plan A, the Kennedy family had to be very careful what they say. They must have strongly suspected the existence of Plan B, but they didn’t want the whole truth, and the guilty parties could be expected to claim Plan A plus accident if it ever came to a trial. In fact the Kennedy family have a very strong interest in silencing Oswald, and maybe one of them fixed it with the police and with Jack Ruby. They could have made it seem just like a family vendetta and a desire to spare poor Jackie Kennedy any more distress. (This last was actually cited by Ruby as a reason for killing Oswald.)
Johnson with his experience of Texas politics may well have worked out some of what happened, he’d definitely notice the oddity of the Kennedy attitude. Understandably, he doesn’t want Robert Kennedy as his vice-president, a heart-beat away from the top job. And by March 1968 he’s sick of the whole business and retires. Possibly he saves his own life by so doing: Martin Luther King is shot in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy in June 1968, directly after his win in the California primary has made him a very plausible winner of the Presidential race.
On this reading, Robert Kennedy should know he is in danger from ‘Group B’ and should have taken precautions. Perhaps he does and gets betrayed, I think the visible hypocrisy of the Kennedy style would nurture traitors, people who’d taken the myth for truth and been sickened by the reality that they saw as ‘insiders’. Mortal Error describes how John F. Kennedy had a cavalier attitude to safety, and also expressed an insulting view of the Secret Service agents there to protect him, calling them “Ivy League charlatans”.
Considering 1968—a key year which also saw the begin of Leninism’s self-destruction with Brezhnev’s suppression of Reformist Communism in Czechoslovakia—it’s an odd fact that Johnson turned himself into a lame-duck President on March 31st, and Martin Luther King was shot on April 3rd. There are strong suspicions of conspiracy and cover-up, but consider also the balance of power. Civil Rights had flourished in the 1960s, because both Kennedy and Johnson had given it their reluctant protection: they knew it would cost them Southern Democrat votes, but also knew what open racism was costing the US in the non-white world, vital territories in the Cold War. But after March 31st, Johnson had much less clout, and it was a fair bet that the next President would be a Republican.
With the Democratic Party abandoning a racist heritage that stretched back well before the Civil War of the 1860s, the Republicans set to work detaching Southern Democrats, using anti-state rhetoric to gather up racist votes without losing the much larger number of voters who would never vote for an overtly racist party. The ex-Democrats turned Republican would include the Plan B people, so that if the Republicans suspect anything, they have excellent reasons for letting sleeping dogs lie.
Group B probably remained a small player in the game of American politics. I’ve no idea who was in it, but probably they had little beyond an expertise in murder. Group B may also have done one more assassination, the failed attack on George Wallace in 1972. In 1968, he was attempting to create a Third Party based on Southern Democrat values, splitting the vote and helping to get Nixon elected. But by 1972 he was back in the Democrat camp, so that if Group B had found a niche in the Republican Party, he was by then their enemy. Towards the end of his life, Wallace did in fact become the slightly improbable ally of black Democrats in the South.
If Cuba was the issue, then they failed, Castro is still there. If it was Vietnam, then they blundered. Even if it would have been wiser to have preserved Diem, that option was now closed. And as A Bright Shining Lie mentions, Kennedy was more open to the idea of fighting with irregular force, which might have succeeded. General Westmorland chose to fight Vietnam as a war of attrition, without considering that Hanoi could endure a lot more for national reunification than the USA was likely to accept for a foreign war that they were free to walk away from.
If the issue was Civil Rights, then fortunes have been much more mixed, though the gathering-up of the racists by the Republican Party would probably have happened anyway. The Republicans are already making progress by using Libertarian doctrines to preserve racism and break up the Roosevelt coalition that had done a lot for America over the past four decades. Killing Martin Luther King helped shift black protest towards communal violence, which ended by creating a much deeper division than when there was formal segregation.
The switch of southerners from Democrat to Republican involved lots of different people, with separate and often contradictory motives. Including John Connally, who was an incidental victim of Group B. And to my surprise, it turns out that he nearly got to the White House, where he would have been in a position to uncover the real truth about what happened in Dallas:
“Connally switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 1973, three months after LBJ’s death. In the wake of the bribery-related resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, Nixon passed word that he would name Connally to fill the vacancy. This would have put Connally in a strong position to run for president in 1976. Nixon and Connally had privately mused about starting a new Whig-type party in the tradition of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. But Democrats and Republicans alike in the Senate erupted in a “firestorm of protest.” Warnings went up that if Nixon pursued the appointment, some powerful Senate Democrats “would be determined to destroy Connally.” This was during the height of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately forced Nixon to resign. Nixon named House minority leader Gerald Ford vice president but said that he intended to support Connally for the 1976 GOP nomination. In the aftermath, Connally rejoined Vinson and Elkins but soon confronted a criminal prosecution for alleged bribery and conspiracy in a “milk-price” scandal. He was acquitted after a trial in federal court.” (http://texaspolitics.lamc.utexas.edu/html/exec/governors/25.html)
Perhaps it was no more than a simple desire to keep an unsuitable man out off office, I don’t claim to know. But it is notable that US politicians did put lots of limits on their Secret Services in the 1970s, including a ban on the assassination of foreign leaders. In part in reaction to Vietnam and the gross lies that had been told, but also from a suspicion that a policy of political assassination hadn’t just been applied to foreigners.
High Liberalism ended with Kennedy, and quite possibly would have ended even if he hadn’t been shot. High Liberalism assumes that it can be moderate and generous and still get its own way. This was broadly true in Britain from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 down to the Great War of 1914-18, during which Liberalism disintegrated. In the USA, High Liberalism lasted rather longer and was vindicated in American eyes by US dominance and prosperity after World War Two. But by the 1960s, Kennedy faced massive contradictions within the society, plus an escalating war in Vietnam that he could not easily have pulled out of. Whether some other solution could have been snatched out of the fluctuating politics of the 1960s is unknown, but my feeling is that it could not.