The Dark Side of Camelot
By Seymour Hersh
HarperCollins, 1998. 498 pp., $22.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
On the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, a CIA officer was handing a poisoned pen to a Cuban exile in Paris to assassinate Fidel Castro. JFK's death has been mourned to the brink of nausea, yet Kennedy's obsession with murdering out-of-favour politicians has not dimmed his lustre as the virtuous golden boy of US politics. Kennedy's ideological curators have worked hard to showcase the Kennedy exhibit as one of peace, equality and democracy.
Seymour Hersh is one of the few US political commentators to expose the dirt swept under the Kennedy, and Democratic Party, rugs. His new book is the fruit of five years of intensive research and investigation which log the dark side of the Kennedy moon, the side always hidden from public gaze.
It contains few surprises to socialists concerning Kennedy's politics, but there are enough new scraps giving off an odour of corruption and sleaze to wake up those who may have been dozing off at the back of the class.
Kennedy's corruption, befitting the monster of capitalism, began and ended with the power of money. His father's spending bought JFK's election in 1960.
Joe Kennedy, whose wealth from stock market speculation (and, earlier, bootleg liquor) topped $500 million in 1969, knew that journalists, state and local officials, Chicago mobsters and the Mafia bosses of trade unions and Las Vegas casinos could be bought for electoral favours.
No expense was spared and no deal too sordid to be struck. The superannuation funds of the mob-controlled Teamsters' Union, for example, flowed to the Kennedy coffers in return for a promise for the FBI to go easy on the Mafia's syndicates if Kennedy was elected.
Money alone was not enough, of course, and Kennedy could never have snuck home in the Cold War 1960 presidential election against Nixon if he didn't have the right, and I mean right, politics. The anticommunist Nixon was outdone by the "liberal" Kennedy at his own game, Kennedy "discovering" a fictitious "missile gap" with the Soviet Union and a Cuban "communist menace" just off the coast of the land of the free.
That Kennedy was not some liberal democratic freak of nature who smashed the mould of presidents before and after is indicated by his actions, public and private, as president. Who did Kennedy appoint as FBI director the day after the election? The anti-red fanatic J. Edgar Hoover. CIA heads? The Cold Warrior Allen Dulles, followed by John McCone, a rich Californian Republican and anti-Castro fanatic.
Planning for political assassination of troublesome Third World leaders "continued without interruption" after Kennedy's election, along with destabilisation and overthrow of distasteful governments of socialist or nationalist inclination.
Direct invasion of Cuba was a Kennedy project with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-financed and trained Cuban exiles, followed by the propaganda war and economic sabotage of the CIA's Operation Mongoose.
Kennedy escalated the US war against Vietnam, wary of losing corporate support if he should "lose Vietnam". When the US-supported corrupt despot, South Vietnam's President Diem, went mildly soft and began making overtures to the north for a political settlement which would have shut the US out of Vietnam and threatened the prospects for US looting of the region, Kennedy ordered Diem's assassination in a coup that put the rabid Thieu in charge in 1963 and condemned Vietnam to over a decade of horrific blood-letting.
The Alliance for Progress, a Kennedy bauble which is often flashed about as evidence of Kennedy's commitment to social justice and economic welfare in Latin America, turns out to be the fools' gold of increased military aid, with an emphasis on internal security, police training and arms for a regional war against reform movements ("fighting communism", in the official code).
The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which has sent Kennedy acolytes into raptures of praise for Kennedy's "toughness and restraint ... of will, nerve and wisdom that dazzled the world" in the struggle against the Commie thug Khrushchev, was a crisis of Kennedy's own making, says Hersh.
It was Kennedy's policies of installing US nuclear weapons in Turkey aimed at Russia that brought the Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba in the first place, and Kennedy, who rejected a diplomatic solution of the crisis from the start, threatened the world with nuclear annihilation primarily to refurbish his domestic credentials of not being "soft on communism".
Kennedy's private morality was as unsavoury as his public affairs. Suitcases of money passed from Californian businessmen seeking government defence contracts. Kennedy's need for sexual conquest put his constant retinue of Hollywood starlets, female political aides and high-class prostitutes at risk of infection and infertility from Kennedy's venereal disease of chlamydia, about which he did not inform his sexual partners.
Kennedy's reputation has survived courtesy of his political fan club, which, like the compliant reporters who "printed anything the White House told them" during his reign, have invoked "plausible denial" to disguise the link between Kennedy and the CIA Rottweilers of US foreign policy.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco? Kennedy was "a victim of the CIA's ambition", misled by his advisers and government agencies. Castro assassination plots? Kennedy was unaware of them. Vietnam? Noble intentions gone tragically wrong.
At the same time, Kennedy was an expert at image management, able to woo support from good people — Marilyn Monroe sincerely believed that under Kennedy "no child will go hungry, no person will sleep in the street and get his meals from garbage cans". Many US blacks saw him as the archangel of racial harmony.
It was all carefully manicured image. The substance was that President Kennedy governed for the business interests of US capital.
Hersh's book can help to ruffle the hair and smear the make-up of the Kennedy image. This is a necessary task amidst the din of JFK assassination buffs speculating about bullet trajectories and gun calibres, and the noisy ecstasies of the Kennedy worshippers tripping on the opium of the JFK myth: that a capitalist society of wealth and corruption can be reformed from within by politicians of wealth and corruption instead of overthrown by the people.