by Lisa Pease | 3/30/2008 01:23:00 AM
I cringe whenever I hear progressives ding Kennedy's foreign policy record, as I did today. They do so out of an ignorance not of their own making, but of one studiously foisted upon them.

It is important to remember, especially with President John Kennedy, that history is written by the victor. Kennedy wasn't just killed once. He was killed posthumously so that all he was trying to do, and stood for, would be washed away. By making him less than who he was, his assassination would seem less necessary. By painting him as a rabid cold warrior, no one would suspect cold warriors of having killed him.

Sadly, a whole set of generations are now growing up with false history about John Kennedy (and Bobby, albeit less so). I felt the need to correct a bit of that record.

Kennedy was inaugurated three days after Lumumba was killed in the Congo. Kennedy was known to be a supporter of Lumumba, and was devastated when he learned of his assassination.

As Gerard Colby so brilliantly noted in "Thy Will Be Done":

Within a month of Kennedy's election, some of Nelson [Rockefeller]'s closest allies ... were meeting in the White House's Cabinet Room or heading key offices in the new administration. Swiftly and quietly, they began implementing many of the changes in government structure and policy that Nelson advocated.

This secret victory [for Rockefeller] was the outcome of Kennedy's inexperience. Kennedy had spent the past five years running for office. He knew politicians, but not men who could run the government of a world power.
Kennedy turned to Robert Lovett, a former Truman administration veteran. Lovett was also a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation.

So right from the start, without realizing it, Kennedy had brought the empire builders right into the top places in his administration. He'd be fighting them for the rest of his short term.

In his second full month in office, he ended support for the anti-communist dictator in Laos that the CIA-Pentagon forces had installed during Eisenhower's term. Kennedy said at a news conference that the US "strongly and unreservedly" supported a goal of a "neutral and independent Laos."

He inherited an already-in-motion operation in the Bay of Pigs when he stepped into the White House. In April, he gave a green light based strictly on the information the CIA had provided, which was that the CIA was simply supporting a native revolution, and was going to offer limited support.

That wasn't true, but Kennedy didn't know then that the CIA would deliberately mislead a president. During the mission, the CIA and Navy pressured Kennedy hard to send in the Marines, stationed offshore, in a full-scale invasion. Kennedy resisted, angering the forces hell-bent on overthrowing Castro.

When Kennedy saw the mission was not going as planned, the CIA figured he would not opt to lose, but would throw more forces at it for victory. But they guessed wrong. Kennedy took the hit, and then forced Allen Dulles, the Godfather of the CIA, from the Agency. Many in the Agency hated Kennedy from that point forward, and the feeling was mutual.

That's when Kennedy made the famous vow to splinter the CIA into 1000 pieces and scatter it to winds. He explicitly set up the Defense Intelligence Agency to corral the CIA's covert operations under strict military control. The DIA opened October 1, 1961, a move which made CIA operatives' blood boil even further.

In July of 1961, Allen Dulles and the Joint Chiefs of Staff present Kennedy with a preemptive nuclear strike plan to be launched against the USSR in late 1963, to be preceded by a period of escalating (and manufactured) events. Kennedy walks out, saying to Dean Rusk, "and they call us the human race."

In September of 1961, Khrushchev initiates a backchannel correspondence with Kennedy. He slips a letter into a newspaper carried to a Kennedy aide. Kennedy writes back. They agree to disagree on many things, but both agree keeping the forces surrounding them from launching a nuclear weapon is of paramount concern. Publicly, Khrushchev shakes a fist at Kennedy, refusing nuclear disarmament.

In October, Khrushchev escalates the Cold War by erecting the Berlin Wall.

In November of 1961, Kennedy resists pressure from the Joint Chiefs to send combat troops to Vietnam. Under intense pressure, he compromises - allows military advisors and support personnel.

Also in November, Kennedy authorizes "Operation Mongoose," which did not include plans to kill Castro. (The CIA, by their own admission in their IG report, kept the Castro plots from Kennedy.) Mongoose was designed to "help Cuba overthrow Castro" - meaning, aid them in a native revolution, the same thing Kennedy thought he was authorizing with the Bay of Pigs. But this time, he appointed an Army man, General Ed Lansdale, to keep the CIA in check. Kennedy would later say he wasted his brother in the AG position, and should have given him control over the CIA.

Also in 1961, Kennedy reaches out to Sukarno in Indonesia. His nationalism leans in a communist direction. Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA tried to kill Sukarno. But Kennedy wanted to work with him, and to offer him not arms, but aid of a more productive kind. He appointed a team of economic advisors to study the problem.

Meanwhile, Indonesia was having a crisis in what is now called West Papua, but then called West Irian or Irian Jaya. This site contained a mountain so rich in ore it was called "Copper Mountain". The mountain is long gone, but the area is now home to the world's largest gold mine (operated by Freeport McMoRan).

The Dutch had conceded their entire former colony of Indonesia independence except this region of riches. And Sukarno wanted to keep Indonesia whole. The US, allies to both, was caught in the middle. Kennedy asked Ellsworth Bunker to broker an agreement, which led to a promise of West Irian independence. To soothe Sukarno, Kennedy issued a national security memorandum in which he included these instructions:

To seize this opportunity, will all agencies concerned please review their programs for Indonesia and assess what further measures might be useful. I have in mind the possibility of expanded civic action, military aid, and economic stabilization and development programs as well as diplomatic initiatives.
Where the Cold Warriors tried to destroy Sukarno, Kennedy tried to help him. Sukarno was particularly affected when Kennedy was killed. Separately, the Rockefellers were involved in Freeport McMoRan's predecessor, Freeport Sculpture in Indonesia, which benefited when a coup overthrew Sukarno and brought Suharto to power. (For the tangled story there - see JFK, Indonesia, CIA and Freeport Sulphur.)

Meanwhile, back in the states, on April 11, 1962, Kennedy took on the steel industry with words stronger than anything John Edwards ever said:

Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steal corporations increasing steel prices by some $6 a ton constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest. In this serious hour in our Nation's history when we are confronted with grave crises in Berlin and Southeast Asia, when we are devoting our energies to economic recovery and stability, when we are asking reservists to leave their homes and their families for months on end and servicemen to risk their lives--and four were killed in the last two days in Viet Nam and asking union members to hold down their wage requests at a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.
In May of 1962, Kennedy instructed McNamara to find a way out of Vietnam. McNamara turned to General Paul Harkins and ordered him to "devise a plan for turning full responsibility over to South Vietnam and reducing the size of our military command, and to submit this plan at the next conference." Harkins ignored this order, but McNamara wouldn't learn this for several months.

In July of 1962, the US becomes one of fourteen nations signing the "Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos" in Geneva. The CIA and Pentagon see this as treason, capitulation to the communists.

I could go on all night, but I won't. I'll summarize with a quote from Don Gibson's book "Battling Wall Street":

When Kennedy went against his advisors on foreign policy, it was because he rejected the idea that the US had a right to control economic and political event sin other nations. In quite sharp contrast to his strong military stand against the powerful Soviet Union, Kennedy was reluctant to employ military force against smaller and weaker nations. This reluctance was completely consistent with his comments in 1959 ... where he rejected "the pageantry of imperialism."

Chester Bowles cited the following decisions made by Kennedy against a majority of his advisors: refusing to invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs disaster; refusing to intervene in the Dominican Republic following the assassination of Trujillo; refusing to introduce ground forces into Laos; refusing to escalate our involvement in Vietnam; backing U.N. policy in the Congo, and backing India in a dispute with China and Pakistan. In making these decisions, Kennedy was repeatedly affirming his idea of a US foreign policy against those who either shared the neo-colonialist attitudes of various economic interests in Europe and the US or viewed all interests of the Third World nations as unimportant compared to the ongoing conflict with communism.

Considering the multitude of factors involved in any significant foreign policy decision, it is reasonable to conclude that consistency across a series of such decisions indicates underlying principles.
On June 10 in the last year of his life, Kennedy spoke these words:

I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.
Show me a better foreign policy than that.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 3/30/2008 2:29 AM:

I'm far from an expert on the Kennedy years, but it does seem to me that you give Kennedy too little credit. There's no doubt in my mind that Allen Dulles and his colleagues at the CIA were the worst of the worst in American government. There's a professor here at IU who's literally written the book on the Guatemala operation, and I know about the team that removed Mossadegh as well -- so their track record in my view was very, very bad.

At the same time, though, Kennedy signed off on the Bay of Pigs operation. I've no doubt that it was inexperience coupled with the insistence of Dulles and company that led him to do it. But he still signed off on it. He may have changed his mind later on -- but that's still his signature on the document authorizing the invasion.

I'm an apologist for another Democratic president who exhibited aggressive foreign policy tendencies early in his term as a result of bad advice -- Woodrow Wilson, whose chief advisor, Colonel House, was a closet imperialist. I argue that Wilson changed his stripes in the crucible of international involvements during World War I. But what I'd never try to argue is that Wilson wasn't ultimately responsible for his earlier disasters -- the invasion at Veracruz, the Dominican Republic operation, and the Villa expedition. Wilson may have been inexperienced and the victim of bad advice, but he was ultimately the President, and he and he alone is responsible for his signature. I'd suggest that the same applies to Kennedy -- no matter how bad his advice was, he still made a choice to follow it.


Blogger Lisa Pease on 3/30/2008 10:22 AM:

Neither I nor Kennedy himself ever claimed he wasn't responsible for the Bay of Pigs. But a lot of people use that as justification for calling Kennedy a Cold Warrior, when that act was the abberation, not the rule, for Kennedy. He really believed, when he started, that targeted paramilitary actions would be able to change the world. By 1963, he was convinced that was not only wrongheaded but dangerous to the survival of the human race.

And btw - it wasn't Dulles who was primarily misleading Kennedy - it was Richard Bissell. He gave him a near 100% guarantee of success. Bissell didn't last much longer either.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 3/30/2008 12:44 PM:

Ah -- ok. I have seen David Talbot claim it in a cover story at TIME Magazine, which made me rather unhappy. I'm glad you have a more nuanced view than he does.