The Killing of JFK: So Who Done It?

President John F. Kennedy is seen riding in motorcade approximately one minute before he was shot in Dallas, Tx., on Nov. 22, 1963. In the car riding with Kennedy are Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, right, Nellie Connally, left, and her husband, Gov. John Connally of Texas. (photo: AP)

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Written by Steve Weissman for Reader Supported News

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

Carl Gibson got it absolutely right, affirming for a new generation of change-hungry activists what ordinary Americans, according to repeated polls, have suspected for half a century about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “The official evidence is bullshit.” The Warren Commission Report just doesn’t wash, as President Gerald Ford, a member of the commission, later admitted to his French counterpart Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. “It wasn’t a lone assassin,” said Ford, as the ancient Giscard now recalls. “It was a plot. We knew for sure it was a plot. But we didn’t find who was behind it.”

But hold on. Not even the best bullshit detector can establish what Carl calls “overwhelming evidence” about “who really killed JFK.” Nor does theologian James Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable,” the fascinating but ultimately misleading book that Carl credits as his primary source. Douglass assembles “mind-blowing facts” about the CIA, other U.S. intelligence agencies, top military officials, and corporate entities, any and all of whom might well have wanted Kennedy dead. But like so many Kennedy assassination truthers, Douglass puts the cart before the horse, telling us why Kennedy died and why it matters without knowing who among the usual suspects actually conspired to do the deed.

Did the conspirators include Allen Dulles, the former head of the CIA whom Kennedy sacked over the Bay of Pigs? Or General Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, whom Kennedy rebuffed and refused to reappoint over Operation Northwoods, a plan to stage a provocation to build support for an invasion of Cuba? Or Lyndon Baines Johnson, whom the killing made king? And/or crime bosses Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, and Carlo Marcello? And/or rogue CIA veterans, say E. Howard Hunt, later of Watergate fame? And/or anti-Castro Cuban exiles? And/or Southern racists and other conservatives?

In short, who done it? Who exactly do we indict? As the rascally defense attorney Johnny Cochrane might have put it, if we can’t name the names, we can’t fix the blame.

We can – and should – blame Dulles, Lemnitzer, LBJ, the military-industrial complex, and other of the movers and shakers for a long list of economic, social, and political crimes. But not for the assassination, a discrete event that demands hard evidence that could stand up in either a court of law or a cut-throat graduate history seminar. We should never stop trying to find that evidence, but at least so far, no one – including filmmaker Oliver Stone – has produced a court-worthy case that the top echelons of some shadowy secret government or “deep state” organized the killing.

This hole continues to undermine the entire exercise. If we cannot identify the conspirators by name, how can we possibly say why they did it? And if we cannot say why, how can we reasonably make the killing of JFK central to a more general political ideology about how power works in the United States and how we might change it?

Which brings us to Carl’s belief that JFK “was secretly working to end the US occupation of Vietnam.” The claim that this supposed withdrawal plan could have been a prime motivation for his murder has been around since at least the early 1970s, but let’s look at it apart from who killed him and why. Two different strands provide the basic evidence.

First, many of JFK’s close confidants say that he told them that he planned to withdraw from Vietnam after winning a second term. The problem is that they never bothered to mention it in their celebration of Camelot and kept quiet about JFK’s “hidden agenda” until 1967-1968, when America’s foreign policy elite, especially in the Democratic Party, was turning to the view that they could never win the war. The hesitation should prompt at least a little suspicion that convenient memories represent a heartfelt effort to whitewash JFK.

Second, JFK left behind the famous National Security Action Memos 263, in which he supposedly called for a complete withdrawal from Vietnam within two years. Only the document does not say that. Read it for yourself. “It remains the central objectives of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of the country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy,” says paragraph 1.

NSAM 263 then mentions withdrawal in the context of bringing home 1,000 military advisors who had been training the South Vietnamese forces. According to the war’s leading historian, Stanley Karnow, this was primarily to prod South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem to soften what JFK saw as a counter-productive crackdown on internal dissidents. Shortly after, and only three weeks before Dallas, Kennedy tacitly agreed to a South Vietnamese military coup against Diem, which led to the dictator’s death.

NSAM 263 and surrounding documents also suggest that Kennedy hoped to bring home a larger number of military advisers within two years. By then he expected South Vietnamese forces to be able to beat the Communists with much less American participation. But, if his beloved Green Berets and their “Vietnamization” failed, as it would, there is little to suggest that Team Kennedy, which became Team Johnson, would ever willingly leave Southeast Asia. This is why Noam Chomsky and others have insisted that JFK planned to withdraw completely only if he could claim a victory. Douglass, who is a more a moralist than serious historian, completely misses the plot.

As with all counter-factual history, none of us have any way to prove what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived. But one other element of the story needs comment, even at the risk of goring sacred cows. Borrowing uncritically from the Douglass book, JFK’s nephew Robert Kennedy Jr. tells a delightful story of a 1967 interview that his father gave Daniel Ellsberg, a then wavering war hawk who was researching what became “The Pentagon Papers,” which he later leaked. Ellsberg wanted to know how JFK, who had sent so many advisers into Vietnam, had held out against sending in combat troops. “My father explained that his brother did not want to follow France into a war of rich against poor, white versus Asian, on the side of imperialism and colonialism against nationalism and self-determination,” wrote Robert Jr.

“Would JFK have accepted a South Vietnamese defeat?” Ellsberg pressed. “We would have handled it like Laos,” said brother Robert. “What made him so smart?” Ellsberg pressed further. “Whap!” Bobby’s hand slammed down on the table, and Ellsberg jumped in his chair. “Because we were there!” said Bobby, slapping down again on the desk. “We saw what was happening to the French. We were determined never to let that happen to us.”

Bobby was describing a trip he and JFK, newly elected to Congress, had made to Vietnam in 1951, where they saw for themselves and learned from an American diplomat called Edward Gullion that the French Legionnaires, for all their bravery, were doomed to lose, as they did at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. But the story and the insistence from brother Bobby, nephew Robert Jr., and author Douglass that JFK had generally opposed the American war in Vietnam masks the deeper tragedy of JFK’s interventionist approach to foreign policy.

In May 1953, only two years after the “epiphany” in Vietnam, JFK met Diem, who was living in the United States, and became one of the first Americans to back the Catholic politician to become leader of the primarily Buddhist Vietnam. Kennedy then worked with the CIA and its American Friends of Vietnam to build support for Diem, whom he saw as an anti-French nationalist and “a third way” between colonialism and communism. He thought that the United States could create and sustain a nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh and his communist-led National Liberation Front. It did not work with Diem and was not about to work with Vietnamization.

JFK made a similar mistake in Latin American with his Alliance for Progress, which claimed to support U.S.-led reform as an alternative to left-wing revolution. As I showed back in the 1970s, the Alliance played a key role in promoting the string of right-wing military coups from Brazil to Chile. The same with JFK’s supposed support for Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Though, as Carl writes, JFK clearly understood how the U.S. had colonized Cuba, we can hardly call his extended effort to kill Castro in Operation Mongoose a form of support.

Where, then, does that leave us? Much to his credit, JFK moved beyond being a committed Cold Warrior and worked with Nikita Khrushchev to defuse some of the nuclear threat, just as Ronald Reagan learned to work with Mikhail Gorbachev. But, like Reagan, Kennedy tried to use every element of American power to crush independent nationalist and reformist movements. Is that really the kind of interventionist foreign policy that any of us want to support?

 


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold.”

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.