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Kennedy assassination at 50: We’re still in “nut country”

November 22nd, 2013 · 9 Comments · Crime, History, Media

The “nut country” reference was my lead in a Nov. 22, 2011 post. It’s still timely, so I’m reprinting it below, followed by additional information about an extraordinary book on the Kennedy assassination by a former UH professor (and old friend), Jim Douglass.

First, “nut country” redux.

JFK: “We’re really in ‘nut county’ now.”
July 27th, 2011 ·

You can say that again.

“I shouldn’t read the obituaries,” wrote friend and Former Neighbor Bob, as he pointed me to a recent New York Times obit (“Warren Leslie Dies at 84; Wrote Book That Rankled Dallas“).

Warren was a former reporter who wrote his book following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

Bob noted today’s political context:

Tea Party takes on Boehner
” . . .GOP backers of the plan will be targeted at the polls. . .”

Then, quoting from the obituary:

“It is an extraordinary thing when an American city does not trust itself to receive the president of the United States in dignity,” Mr. Leslie wrote. “Dallas did not so trust itself — and with reason.”

The reason, he posited, was the stridency and dominance of right-wing politics bolstered by the city’s insular business elite. “Almost without exception, these are people who feel that their greatest enemy is not the Soviet Union or Communist China, but the government of the United States,” Mr. Leslie wrote.

“They feel their worst enemies are other Americans who disagree with them. They are not equipped to deal with contradictory evidence; when it appears, they boo it and hiss it to make it go away.”

The Kennedy quote in the title to this post came from a book by Ted Sorenson, also quoted in the obit.

So the sickness of Dallas and Texas has now been spread to hot spots across the country, and embraced by another generation of Republicans.

Read this obit. It’s quite a relevant bit of political history.

In any case, like many others of my generation, I remember that morning of November 22, 1963, as if it were last week. It probably did change my life, as it did many others.

And I still think a book by former UH religion professor, Jim Douglass, provides one of the most thorough and thought provoking overviews of the assassination and, more importantly, its political context.

JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters,” is long, detailed, but very readable. Here’s a review I found useful. And there’s even a group preparing a graphic adaptation.

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  • John

    Kennedy was killed by a nut who, if anything, was a communist. In 1963 leftists tried to use the assassination as a tool to bludgeon their enemies. It was despicable then and it’s despicable now.

    • Ian Lind

      You obviously feel strongly about this, but it would be useful to look at the range of assessments, many well researched and evidence driven. You’ve apparently got a lot invested in the official narrative, although I’m not sure what you’re referring to about “leftists” using the assassination as a “bludgeon.” Explain the reference, please. And the official narrative has many problems, as alternative analyses have amply shown.

      • John

        I’m referring to YOU using the assassination to smear the tea party which, barring time-travel, cannot have had any part in JFK’s murder.

        • Ian Lind

          You wrote:
          “In 1963 leftists tried to use the assassination as a tool to bludgeon their enemies.”
          That’s the reference that puzzled me.

        • John

          I was alive and followed politics in 1963. There were many, many articles citing the ” climate of hate” in Dallas, right after the assassination. I’m not going to research them for you.
          BTW, the phrase “They feel their worst enemies are other Americans who disagree with them” – isn’t that a rather perfect description of today’s progressives?

  • John

    Whether the killing was done by Oswald, as the ballistics indicate, or by some well-organized plot by the CIA, Mafia, Castro, or whatever your religion professor friend imagines, of what relevance is the “climate” in Dallas? It’s not even up to the level of guilt by association – its more like guilt by vague inference.

  • compare and decide

    In Ian Lind’s recent Civil Beat article, “Coming to Terms with Our Conspiracy Theories”, on the ‘Kennedy assassination’ (that is, the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, not Robert Kennedy in 1968) raises two questions that haunt him: 1) Was there a conspiracy to assassinate JFK?, and 2) Would JFK have escalated the US’s role in Vietnam the way that President Johnson did?

    For the first question, it depends on how one defines ‘conspiracy’. Hilary Clinton’s charged that there was a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” to bring down her husband’s Presidency. To those that mocked her claim, Gore Vidal observed that every political party essentially is a conspiracy. But that also implies that the Democratic Party is also, like the Republican Party in the US, a conspiracy. That’s a very broad notion of what comprises a ‘conspiracy’.

    In the case of the JFK assassination, in at least one version of the assassination, the concept of ‘conspiracy’ shrinks into a nub.

    This would be the Mafia connection.

    As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was persecuting the Mafia in hearings on national television – the kind of exposure the Mafia has always avoided. (The awareness by officials that the Mafia even existed was a recent phenomenon at the time; even Hoover and the FBI did not know of their existence until rather late in the game.)

    And there was a lot of talk among the leading figures in the Mafia of killing the Kennedys. But the talk evolved into not killing Robert Kennedy, but his brother the President, since killing Robert Kennedy would enrage JFK, who as President would further the persecution of the Mafia; also, it was understood that Robert Kennedy and LBJ hated each other, and that under LBJ within a year Robert Kennedy would lose his job as AG (which is what actually happened). Also, the Mafia conversations ruminated on who would carry out the assassination; they would not have one of their own do it, but rather some ‘nut’ who would divert attention from the Mafia. Here’s the crucial part: Oswald might have been approached by representatives of the Mafia, and it might have been suggested to him that he shoot JFK.

    But the actual assassination seems to have been carried out solely by Oswald, and without much planning. This seems to fit a pattern in Oswald’s life. Oswald had shot at a right-wing General, Edwin Walker, seven months earlier and, just prior to the JFK assassination, Oswald’s wife confessed to friends that Oswald would have psychotic episodes where he would claim that he was on the verge of becoming a “great man” who would change world history, and she had been fearing that he was having another episode and would do something rash. That is to say, Oswald was simply not a reliable kind of person who could engage in a complex conspiracy.

    So this leads back to a fascinating theoretical question: What is a conspiracy? If Iago whispers into Othello’s ear that he cannot trust Desdemona, is that a crime? Depending on what specifically Iago says, in some legal systems it is. This is from the wiki on ‘incitement’.

    Incitement was an offence under the common law of England and Wales. It was an inchoate offence.[1] It consisted of persuading, encouraging, instigating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a crime.

    It was abolished in England and Wales on 1 October 2008[2] when Part 2 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 came into force, replacing it with three new statutory offences of encouraging or assisting crime.[3] The common law is now only relevant to offences committed before that date.[4]

    Incitement remains an offence in New Zealand.[5]

    Now, from a legal perspective, even if Mafia representatives had approached Oswald and suggested that he assassinate JFK, is that incitement? Incitement requires the intent to effect ‘mens rea’, or ‘guilty mind’, on the part of the inciter. (“The inciter must intend the others to engage in the behaviour constituting the offence, including any consequences which may result, and must know or believe (or possibly suspect) that those others will have the relevant mens rea.”) One of the ironies of crimes against children is that if a child is otherwise incited to commit a crime by an adult, the adult cannot be charged with incitement in its fullest sense because children under a certain age are understood by law not to be capable of acting with knowledge of their guilt when coerced by an authority figure (at least, this is how I am reading the law). Likewise, Oswald in some sense seemed to have been somewhat mentally and morally incapacitated – aware at some level of what he was doing and that it was wrong, but at another level he seemed delusional. Also, a passing suggestion is not the same thing as an intense attempt to persuade. A passing suggestion (which can be easily denied, incidentally) does not seem like incitement.

    In sum, legally speaking, the Mafia (if it had approached Oswald) might not have been guilty of incitement strictly speaking; moreover, even if the Mafia could have been considered to have engaged in inciting Oswald, that might not be considered a full-blown ‘conspiracy’ as most people imagine conspiracies. (There was no logistical, moral or material support granted to Oswald by the Mafia, apparently.)

    Also, from a practical point of view, would such incitement have had an effect on an erratic personality like Oswald? That is, would he listen to anyone? The poor guy was all over the place, working for both pro-Castro and anti-Castro factions. Oswald was a classic loose cannon. This is what made Oswald so dangerous to the Mafia: A guy like that is capable of saying anything, weaving tales of the CIA and space aliens working together with the Mafia and Castro (and/or anti-Castro forces) and the Russians. So even if Oswald had never been approached by the Mafia, from the shrewd point of view of the Mafia, Oswald had to go.

    From the wiki on Lee Harvey Oswald:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Harvey_Oswald#Ruby.27s_motive

    Ruby’s motive
    Ruby later said he had been distraught over Kennedy’s death and that his motive for killing Oswald was “…saving Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial.” Others have hypothesized that Ruby was part of a conspiracy. G. Robert Blakey, chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1977 to 1979, said: “The most plausible explanation for the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby was that Ruby had stalked him on behalf of organized crime, trying to reach him on at least three occasions in the forty-eight hours before he silenced him forever.

    So was there a conspiracy to assassinate JFK? In the classic sense, no.

    But there was a conspiracy to assassinate … Lee Harvey Oswald.

    Conspiracies are not so interesting. What’s interesting is how the idea of a conspiracy is defined, and why people are interested in conspiracies. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, there is a lot of ‘parallel nostalgia’ for “what could have been” if Kennedy had not died. This is referred to as ‘lost possible selves’.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/01/health/research/01mind.html?_r=0

    If only you had … gotten into Harvard … gotten that job at Apple … married so-and-so … then you’d be in a better parallel reality where the air has more oxygen and the sunlight is warmer. In reality, getting all those things would have been just a different flavor of B.S., which is what you find out if you talk to 1) a Harvard alumnus, 2) a worker at Apple, or 3) the ex-spouse(s) of That (supposedly) Very Special Person. And in some ways, this is sort of how Lee Harvey Oswald used to think.

    What about the Kennedys? The family patriarch Joseph, Sr. made his money the old fashioned way – he stole it, mostly on the stock market. He pulled his money out of the market just before it tanked in 1929. FDR put Joe, Sr. in charge of reforming financial markets on the assumption that “It takes a thief to catch a thief”. As Joe, Sr. rose politically, he pressured his first son, Joe, Jr., to run for President. When Joe, Jr. was killed in WWII, the old man pressured John. After JFK was assassinated, the old man pressured Robert. After Robert was assassinated, the old man pressured Ted. When Ted was embroiled in the Chappaquiddick scandal and could never become POTUS, Joe, Sr. starved himself to death (which is allowed by the Catholic Church). Why all this outrageous ambition? It’s because Irish Catholics have an inferiority complex. Even the Kennedys are a bunch of wannabes.

  • compare and decide

    JFK’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had stated that he was “almost certain” that JFK would have not escalated the American military presence in Vietnam, or would have even withdrawn the US military from Vietnam.

    At least, that’s what I remember from watching this documentary on McNamara, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOp3pUCHGow

    This might be a plausible prediction considering JFK’s political orientation. Contrary to the popular image, he was a realist.

    As JFK’s adviser Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously stated, “John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic, Robert Kennedy, a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist.”

    But I believe that in the early stages of the Kennedy presidency, both John and Robert Kennedy were generally quite conservative in general. I think that they were both wary of the civil rights movement, and the disruptiveness that it could have caused in the midst of the Cold War, in a world which they saw as close to nuclear war.

    In fact, one interpretation I have heard of JFK’s famous rhetorical flourish in his inaugural address — “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – was directed at the civil rights movement. So behind the mask of idealism, there was a pretty stark realism.

    (Keep in mind that traditionally, since the Civil War, the North was Republican and the South was Democratic, so support for the civil rights movement was not assured within the Democratic Party. The main driver for support of the civil rights movement was the Cold War and the rise of television; no one in the world could believe that the US, of all countries, was racially segregated, and scenes of police attacking peaceful protesters turned world opinion against the US. In fact, it’s been observed that TV had very little influence in the perception of the Vietnam War, and when supporters of the war lament that the war could have been won if it were not for television and public opinion, what they are subconsciously referring to is not the Vietnam War, but the Civil Rights movement.)

    The real question might be what liberals like Robert and Ted Kennedy would have done as President. Would they have escalated the way the liberal President Lyndon Johnson did?

    If there is a fundamental misunderstanding of John Kennedy’s political temperament, this is compounded by a very basic error in current stereotypes of foreign policy orientations: contrary to popular perception, conservatives tend to be cautious realists, and liberals to be idealistic interventionists (Liberal Internationalism).

    There might be also a widespread misperception of the strategic context of the Vietnam War that would validate the claim that JFK would not have escalated the war.

    In 1949, China ‘fell’ to communism. Every US administration subsequently swore that no nation would fall to communism on their ‘watch’. This ratcheted up the stakes of the Cold War.

    Indonesia was a special example of this. Indonesia is a population superpower, with about 250 million people. In the 1960s, it’s population was 100 million – still huge by any standard. The communist party in Indonesia was courted by the Indonesian leader Sukarno. This put all of southeast Asia in the vice grip (presumably, at least) of Chinese and Indonesian communism. This scenario was known as the ‘nutcracker’. (There is only one website that mentions this, the CS Monitor.)

    http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0303/030342.html/%28page%29/3

    In 1964, after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (Congress’s response to alleged attacks on US destroyers by North Vietnam) Johnson boosted American troop strength to a half million. At the time the White House thought Vietnam was caught in a communist ”nutcracker” between China and Indonesia, said John Mueller, a political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York. ”To the north,” he said, ”China was then perceived as zany and crazy and ready to invade. To the south, Sukarno in Indonesia was seen as very closely aligned with the Chinese.

    The theory in play in relation to this was the ‘domino effect’: That if and when China, Indonesia and Vietnam went communist, all of southeast Asia and then South Asia and then, potentially, the Middle East, would become communist.

    There is at least one problem with these theories, however. As soon as President Johnson announced his commitment to intervening in Vietnam in 1964, China and Indonesia each entered into a kind of civil war. Both countries were effectively neutralized.

    ”Soon after Tonkin, however,” said Professor Mueller, ”both arms of the nutcracker fell of. The Communist Party in Indonesia was decimated by the murder of 200,000. And almost simultaneously China became preoccupied with its own cultural revolution and then became worried about an attack from the Soviet Union.” By 1968 the domino theory no longer held water, though it seemed to chug ahead under its old steam, said Mueller, thus predicating America’s Vietnam policy ”on an anachronism.”

    So this was a unique – and ironic – situation. Just when a superpower committed itself to full-scale warfare, the strategic objectives of the war had dissolved. The so-called ‘domino effect’ had been rendered irrelevant just when it had been explained to the citizenry. Also, the political elite of both political parties in the US knew this, but were loath to admit this in public.

    But a new rationale for involvement was articulated by Richard Nixon, which is the ‘credibility’ doctrine. Nixon, as President, announces in 1968 that the US is going to withdraw from Vietnam, but only after a ‘decent interval’ of five years in order for the US not to look weak. The US must do this in order to maintain its credibility in the Middle East, where Soviet intervention could very easily lead to direct conflict with the US, which could escalate to nuclear war. (The flaw in this argument is that the USSR had no credibility in the Middle East by the 1960s.)

    This leads back to the question of how JFK would have acted on Vietnam. Would his realism – even conservatism – have made it less likely for him to commit to Vietnam the way the liberal Johnson did?

    But Nixon was a conservative realist, and continued to support (and expand) the Vietnam War even though, like all the elite, he knew that it served no strategic purpose by 1965. So ideology has its limits.

    And we see this in Hawaii with the liberal Governor Neil Abercrombie, whose policies generally run counter to all that he historically stood for as a politician and person. Once politicians enter office, constrained by circumstance, they end up largely just like the politician they replaced or the candidate that they beat. (Abercrombie always argued that the issue of same-sex marriage should be decided in referendum by the voters; his push for a legislative change in the law might be seen as a way to existentially justify his governorship in his own mind.)

    That being said, if the Cuban missile crisis is any indication, JFK was unusually flexible, improvised and balanced. He had a certain equipoise. In fact, the Cuban experiences his administration had (Bay of Pigs included) might have made him more amenable to a compromise with an adversary (and an awareness that compromise needs to be disguised). One problem with this is that the North Vietnamese refused to negotiate with anyone they considered an invader or a colonizer (Vietnam was a part of China for 1200 years, which the Vietnamese always resisted).

    I remember seeing a film clip of JFK talking about Vietnam, and stating that the US needs to support South Vietnam, but the South Vietnamese need to do their own fighting (again, there’s that balance). Similarly, it was assumed (at least in public) by the Nixon administration that after the US pulled out of Vietnam that the South Vietnamese government could hold its own with US aid (Congress, however, cut funding to South Vietnam, leading to its rapid fall). So in one scenario, perhaps JFK would have financially supported South Vietnam, and that funding would have never ended, and South Vietnam would still exist, albeit in a state of deadly tension with its northern nemesis (as South Korea still exists with its northern counterpart).

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