WEIRDLAND: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

Brothers (2015) by David Talbot begins with Robert Kennedy's reaction to the news of his brother's death in Dallas. The structure flashes back to a year-by-year review of the Kennedy presidency. It then picks up again with RFK after his brother's death, and then follows him forward through to 1968 and his own assassination. It concludes with a summary of the actions taken to try and resolve the issues surrounding both assassinations since 1968. In many ways, the first chapter is the best in the book. It opens with J. Edgar Hoover telling RFK that his brother has been shot. In conversations with two assistants, Bobby immediately refers to the perpetrator of the crime as "they" and not "him". He instinctively believes that the crime centers around the CIA, the Mafia and Cuba and he begins to question people with access to each group, including John McCone, Director of the CIA. When the body arrives back in Washington, RFK questions Secret Service agents Roy Kellerman and James Rowley and finds that both believe there was a crossfire in Dealey Plaza. RFK then told his friend Pat Moynihan to investigate the Secret Service while Bobby interviewed agent Clint Hill himself. In 1962, Bobby told journalist George Bolshakov that Khrushchev did not seem to realize that every step his brother took to meet the premier "halfway costs my brother a lot of effort. In a gust of blind hate, his enemies may go to any length, including killing him." This chapter is the highlight of the book. It may be one of the most important ever written on either the Kennedy presidency, or Robert Kennedy himself. It basically confirms through much firsthand evidence what many have suspected. First, whatever Bobby said in public about the Warren Commission was a sham. 

From the beginning, RFK never believed the lone gunman mythology. He always suspected a powerful domestic conspiracy. Second, he was going to bide his time. He would wait until he was in position to do something about the crime. But he would not jeopardize his path to get to that position by making public comments that would make him a media target in America. As pointed out by Jim Garrison and Harold Weisberg, this strategy entailed its own dangers. For enough people knew about Bobby's suspicions to let the word reach out to others in the power elite. And this is probably one of the chief reasons for what happened in Los Angeles in June of 1968. In fact, both Harold Weisberg and Vincent Salandria predicted that if Bobby won that California primary, he would be killed before he won the presidency. And Talbot does go in explicit terms with that implication. I believe this is the first time that this message, however subliminal, has been contained in a book that reached a mainstream audience. That is a real and salutary accomplishment. In this regard, Talbot deserves kudos.

Talbot quotes Kennedy as saying, "We're not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason." (p. 51) Arthur Schlesinger told Talbot that after the Bay of Pigs Kennedy dismissed the Joint Chiefs "as a bunch of old men. He thought (JCS Chairman) Lemnitzer was a dope." It is at this pivotal point that Kennedy began to withdraw from his formal advisers with disdain and turn more to people like pacifists Ted Sorensen, Pierre Salinger, and his brother Robert. And JFK actually told Walton, "I am almost a "peace-at-any-price president." However, Talbot doesn't write about Operation Forty, which the CIA designed to wipe out the Kennedy Cubans and their leadership so the CIA/Batista Cubans would prevail in Havana. Although he later writes about Operation Northwoods, he skips over the Guantanamo provocation part of the Bay of Pigs, which would have insured an American response. In the aftermath, although he mentions Kennedy's firing of Allen Dulles and Director of Plans Dick Bissell, he leaves out the termination of Deputy Director Charles Cabell. Yet it was Pentagon man Cabell who was at CIA headquarters that night trying to get the analysts to tell Kennedy that the Cubans were using Russian MIG's to strafe the exiles on the beach. This was utterly false but would have put pressure on Kennedy to send in American planes to knock them down. So although his discussion is correct, I believed it lacks texture and layered depth. I point this out because it is generally symptomatic of how Talbot treats the two other great confrontations of the Kennedy presidency, namely the Missile Crisis and the decision to withdraw from Vietnam. He is deft and accurate in his appraisal of these events, but he leaves out some valuable information that I think would aid his argument and make it more compelling to his reader. For example, although he believes that Kennedy was disengaging from Vietnam he writes that the only White House document that gave some indication of this was NSAM 263. This ignores the record of the May 1963 Sec/Def meeting which clearly shows that the administration was withdrawing from the conflagration and rapidly increasing the Vietnamization of the war. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 3) It also leaves out the famous Honolulu Conference of November 20, 1963. This meeting resulted in the tentative draft of NSAM 273, which was then pointedly altered after Kennedy was assassinated. 

These alterations were so serious that in his fine book JFK and Vietnam, John Newman titles his chapter on the subject, "NSAM-273 -- The Dam Breaks." Talbot describes the infamous meeting in July of 1961 where Lemnitzer and Dulles recommended plans for a nuclear first strike against Russia on Kennedy. Talbot also describes how Kennedy, feeling the heat from the organized opposition to his liberal foreign policy, was forced to demote both Goodwin add Chester Bowles at the end of 1961. The book features a good discussion of the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro. In this section he is explicit about the duplicity of Richard Helms in attempting to switch the blame for those plots from the CIA to the Kennedys. He neatly notes that Helms had photos of all the presidents he served except Kennedy's. A deft stroke by Talbot in this regard is his further exposure of Seymour Hersh's hatchet job, The Dark Side of Camelot. He notes how Hersh was so cozy with the CIA in his writing of this book that he trusted covert operator Sam Halpern. Halpern told Hersh that RFK used the late Charles Ford to activate Mafia assets in Cuba to destabilize, and even kill, Castro. Talbot found a Church Committee memorandum by Ford. In discussing his interview with them he explained that his meetings with RFK on Cuba were about "the efforts of a Cuban exile group to foment an anti-Castro uprising, not on Mafia assassination plots." Talbot properly concludes that Helms and Halpern "fabricated their story about Bobby Kennedy and the Mafia. Officials like Helms and Halpern tried to deflect public outrage over their unseemly collusion by pinning the blame on the late attorney general." Talbot could have added here that Halpern should have already been suspect to Hersh because he is listed as a witness in the CIA IG Report. Further, Halpern was placed in charge of the internal investigation of the CIA's supersensitive Operation Forty. The man who placed Sam Halpern in that position was Richard Helms.

Any serious chronicler has to be just as careful with the Marilyn Monroe episode as with Judith Exner's story -- and to his credit, Talbot managed to avoid that disinformation filled land mine. A surprising source Talbot uses here is none other than CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton, the guy who was likely handling Lee Harvey Oswald until 1962. Talbot actually quotes the nutty Cold Warrior, Kennedy antagonist and Warren Commission cover up artist waxing poetic about Kennedy being in love with Mary Meyer: "They were in love... they had something very important, not only sexual, also on an intellectual and platonic level." About Kennedy's philandering, Talbot dismisses this facet a great deal: "Kennedy often had to sleep on a piece of wood. The possibility of him being a Lothario would have been a miracle. He would have been delighted to be thought of as the Errol Flynn of his era. And then he would have been angry, because it takes away from what he truly accomplished. Did he like the ladies? Yes. Did he find bright, fascinating people a challenge and a delight? Yes. But in recent years, the Kennedy legacy has been clouded by a spate of books and articles that have attempted to demythologize Camelot by presenting JFK as a drug-addled, sex-addict. And this pathological interpretation misses the essential story of his presidency. There was a heroic grandeur to John F. Kennedy's administration that had nothing to do with the mists of Camelot. It was a presidency that clashed with its own times, coming to office at the height of the Cold War and held hostage by their party's powerful Southern wing. The Kennedy brothers steadily grew in vision and courage, until they were in such sharp conflict with the national security bureaucracy and Southern Democrats that they risked splitting their own administration and party. This is the fundamental historical truth about the presidency and greatness of John Fitzgerald Kennedy."

Talbot picks up with RFK as he begins to assimilate himself to the pain of his brother's death and his now completely altered future. He relates how Jackie Kennedy reaffirmed to Khrushchev that domestic opposition to his quest for Soviet/American detente had killed JFK. Talbot quickly sketches in the fact that with his brother gone, Bobby was now under Hoover's thumb. For example, when he met with Hoffa, to presumably talk about the assassination, RFK had to borrow Jackie's Secret Service for protection. But he felt he could not move while he was slipping from power or, as he said, "there would be blood in the streets." In addition to Hoover now superseding him, LBJ cut him out of intelligence briefings while Allen Dulles lobbied to get on the Warren Commission. And when the Warren Report was issued in September of 1964, RFK sharply commented, "I have not read the report, nor do I intend to." Talbot quotes an aide whom Johnson had charged with reading the report that LBJ didn't believe it either. Furthering this point about people in power, the author adds to his non-believer list Larry O'Brien, Mayor Richard Daley, and Kennedy aides Fred Dutton and Richard Goodwin. Goodwin specifically pointed to a plot between the CIA and the Mafia. After Bobby was murdered, Secret Service Agent Kenneth O'Donnell acquired a serious drinking problem and died of a liver ailment at age 53. 

RFK delegated the reading of the critical literature to people like Adam Walinsky. As criticism about the Warren Report picked up speed, various critics wanted to talk directly to Bobby. He only met with Penn Jones. As part of his own inquiry, Bobby went to Mexico City and did some work on Oswald's trip down there. (p. 301) As his investigation continued, his enemies began to spy on him. In addition to Hoover, Talbot mentions both Helms and LBJ. And clearly, the policy differences over places like the Dominican Republic, South Africa, Latin America, and especially Vietnam all begin to fan Johnson's fear and paranoia about an RFK run in 1968. The worst chapter in the book, by far, is entitled "New Orleans". This is allegedly about Robert Kennedy's reaction to the investigation of the JFK case by local DA Jim Garrison. One problem seems to be a hangover from the David Talbot of 1992, the man who thought that Robert Blakey (The Plot to Kill the President, 1981) was the ultimate authority on the JFK case. And, to his credit, the author seems to have amended this judgment. About Clay Shaw, Talbot confirms his linking to the CIA. We have this not just from the declassified files, but from FBI agent Regis Kennedy, who said, in referring to Shaw's association with Permindex, that Shaw was a CIA agent who had worked for the Agency in Italy. For over a decade. Jim Garrison had busted at least three bars in New Orleans which were run either by Carlos Marcello or his associates. I have been through a large part of the extant Garrison files. His son Lyon Garrison allowed me to copy them in New Orleans. I then had them shipped to Los Angeles and filed them in chronological order. In a legal deposition, Gordon Novel admitted that he was being paid by Walter Sheridan on a retainer basis for spying on Jim Garrison. Since Novel was writing letters to people like Richard Helms at the time, it's fair to say he was working with the Agency. Further, Garrison discovered that Sheridan was getting the expense money for people like Novel through a local law firm, which was laundering it for the CIA. And a declassified FBI memo reveals that NBC had given instructions that the special was meant to "shoot him Garrison down". 

Further in Robert Kennedy and his Times, Arthur Schlesinger quotes Kennedy as saying that it was NBC who sent Sheridan to New Orleans, and further that he felt Garrison might be on to something. As many commentators have noted, including Carl Bernstein -- who Talbot uses (p. 390) -- the major networks worked with the CIA on issues like defending the Warren Report. And the chairman of NBC at the time, General David Sarnoff, had worked in intelligence during World War II. In a further imbalance, Talbot barely discusses Sheridan's intelligence background, devoting all of two sentences to it. I could go into much more length about Sheridan's activities in New Orleans, and how they continued even after RFK was dead. And I could point out even more errors Talbot makes on this issue. For instance, he writes that Garrison "turned the tables" on Sheridan and arrested "him for bribing witnesses." Sheridan got an entourage of proven CIA affiliated lawyers for his defense. And in a recurrent tactic, they got the charges switched to federal court where they were eventually thrown out. Sheridan clearly did not like Garrison's focus on the CIA in the JFK case. He then worked a lot with the HSCA, Dan Moldea, and Robert Blakey pushing the Mafia/Jimmy Hoffa angle, which was certainly prominent in the HSCA Report and volumes. Yet on the day the report was issued Marcello's lifelong friend, lobbyist Irving Davidson, told an acquaintance that he had talked to Sheridan and that he agreed that the HSCA report was a piece of crap too. (Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, p. 1175) So if Sheridan did not believe the CIA was involved, and he thought Blakey's focus on the Mafia was B.S., what did he believe then? The mystery of Walter Sheridan -- who he was, and why he did what he did -- is a long, serious, and complex one. Talbot does not even begin to plumb its depths. For that reason I believe and I can demonstrate that every tenet of this chapter is just plain wrong.

The last part of Brothers deals with RFK's run for the White House, his assassination, and a final chapter called "Truth and Reconciliation" which attempts to summarize the various attempts to solve both assassinations since 1968. Talbot posits that Kennedy's increasing estrangement from Johnson's foreign policy, especially on Vietnam, is what provoked his premature run for the White House, which he had originally scheduled for 1972. That and Eugene McCarthy's good showing in New Hampshire. It was a campaign that Jackie did not want RFK to make since, as she told Schlesinger, the same thing would happen to him that had happened to her husband. (p. 352) In keeping with this main theme throughout, Talbot includes RFK telling campaign worker Richard Lubic in San Francisco, "Subject to me getting elected, I would like to reopen the Warren Commission." The night of the great California primary victory Mayor Daley called RFK in his suite and told him he planned on backing him at the convention in Chicago. As the phone call ended, Pierre Salinger said: "Bobby and I exchanged a look that we both knew meant only one thing -- he had the nomination." In the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was shot, Lubic recalled seeing Thane Eugene Cesar with his gun drawn. When investigators from the LA police department arrived at his home, Lubic tried to tell them about this. But they cut him off, "It's none of your business. Don't bring this up, don't be talking about this." Talbot quotes Richard Goodwin on what happened to America afterward: "We've been on an endless cycle of retreat ever since the Kennedys. A retreat not just from liberal ideals, but from that sense of involvement in the country." The last chapter deals first with first the Church Committee and then the HSCA. In an interview with Gary Hart, the former senator told Talbot he thought that Helms was in on the cover-up. For his review of the HSCA, Talbot interviewed former Deputy Counsel Robert Tanenbaum who told him of his interest in and confrontation with David Phillips. He also talked to the co-author of the Mexico City report, Dan Hardway. Hardway also presents his suspicions about Phillips. Hardway believed some CIA officers were implicated. Talbot takes a strong swipe at the media in this last chapter. He writes, "The American media's coverage of the Kennedy assassination will certainly go down as one of its most shameful performances, along with its tragically supine acceptance of the government's fraudulent case for the wars in Vietnam and Iraq." He then interviews Ben Bradlee and tries to press him on why he did not push for a better investigation of JFK's murder. Bradlee states that he was young and not established, therefore probably afraid for his career since he might be discredited over those kinds of efforts. He then adds that it would have been fantastic if they had solved the case. Talbot concludes this section with a quite interesting interview with Frank Mankiewicz who ran the public relations desk for Oliver Stone's JFK: "I worked on the film's behalf because I believed in it. Oliver was the first serious player to tackle the subject." Source: kennedysandking.com

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