JFK’s chemical terror, strategic hamlets, and militarism

In November of last year, 74% of Americans rated the late John F. Kennedy (JFK) as an “outstanding/above average President.” In late October and early November, I wrote a four part series for Dissident Voice about the JFK presidency: the first part focused on JFK’s cabinet; the second partfocused on his push for international investment; the third part focused on his anti-communist views in the realm of foreign policy; and the fourth part focused on domestic issues such as the drug war and civil rights. There is no need to retrace what I have previously written about. Rather, it is better to move onto other subjects, beyond the criticisms of my series, which centered around the conspiracy surrounding his death, and supposedly attributing things to JFK that he didn’t really do. This article will expand on some subjects I covered in my previous series while also focusing on chemical warfare, strategic hamlets, militarism and a criticisms of JFK by radicals during his presidency.

In 2011, on the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, President Obama glorified Kennedy in a way that mirrors those who defend his record:

“…John F. Kennedy, less as a man than as an icon, as a larger-than-life figure who graced this Earth for one brief and shining moment…What President Kennedy understood was the character of the people he led: our resilience, our fearlessness, our distinctly American ability, revealed time and again throughout history, to defy the odds, to fashion our future, to make the world anew…So John F. Kennedy captured that American spirit that not only put a man on the moon, but saved a continent from tyranny and overcame a Great Depression; that forged, from 13 colonies, the last best hope on Earth.”

This article looks to challenge such a rosy version of Kennedy that makes seem seen almost as a god or even a savior. Like in the previous series, there is no need to debate the validity of conspiracy theories but rather it is better to recognize that JFK was assassinated and move on.

Ian McMahan, then a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League’s National Executive Committee, wrote two months after Kennedy’s assassination, a critique that smashes the idea of Kennedy being a “larger-than-life figure” and one that “captured the American spirit” as Obama claimed, titled ‘The Kennedy Myth

“American foreign policy under Kennedy, as under Eisenhower, was a prisoner of its own pragmatism, a narrow, sterile pragmatism…Faced with the challenge of Communist expansion, an expansion based not on arms superiority but on political warfare, Kennedy responded by clinging to those forces throughout the world whose loyalty was surest—and whose ability to resist Communism politically was lowest….He could blockade Cuba; but he could not offer the Cuban people a real alternative to Castro. He could topple Diem; but he could not establish a popular government in South Vietnam. And so his policies were foreshadowed to failure…Kennedy’s orientation, from the first of his Administration to the last, was toward a “safe” civil rights movement which would neither provoke disorder nor scar America’s image abroad…Kennedy’s aim in civil rights…was to “broaden the consensus” on the issue, to persuade the majority to tolerate the minority…The locus of the civil rights fight was not—and is not—in the White House; it was and is in the street…The basis of Kennedy’s labor policy was that the economy’s primary task is production for the Cold War. Full production, not full employment, was the immediate goal…Thus, at a time when corporate profits were at all-time highs, the Administration declined to carry out a redistribution of profits through tax measures…The most dangerous tendency in the Administration’s labor policy was its direct intervention in the collective bargaining process…Alive, John Kennedy was a symbol of the failure of nerve of American liberalism…Yet the Kennedy record, beneath the overwritten poetry, argues decisively against the futile narrowness of “pragmatic” politics and for a new politics of broad realism coupled with social vision.”

The above quote is a small excerpt of a 10 page article that McMahan wrote on the subject. This criticism is confirmed by linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, who argues that it was a miracle the world survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, recognizing how “one Russian submarine captain, Vasily Arkhipov” saved the word from nuclear annihilation, and that “the roots of the middle crisis lay in international terrorism aimed at “regime change”…U.S. terrorist attacks against Cuba began shortly after Castro took power, and were sharply escalated by Kennedy, right up to the missile crisis and beyond.” [1] Such a view counters that of Arthur Schlesinger who says that Kennedy’s action during the in the Cuban Missile Crisis “appeared to vindicate the idea that the President must take unto himself the final judgments of war and peace” and that the crisis itself was “superbly handled, and could not have been handled so well in any other way” even though one of its legacies was “the imperial conception of the presidency.” [2] On the other hand, social activist Howard Zinn writes in the book Terrorism and war that from public disclosure, it reveals that Kennedy “was willing to make a decision about whether or not to pull out troops of Vietnam based on his election chances in 1964,” putting into question how much he even cared about ‘peace’ in Vietnam anyhow (he didn’t). [3] Zinn’s explanation is confirmed by Rick Perlstein The Nation who writes that “the argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the American War upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone’s JFK,” and continues to explain that “Kennedy, of course, was the first president to send soldiers to Southeast Asia, 16,732 of them…[and] many of them actually combatants.” Perlstein continues, noting that “JFK’s plans on what to do in Vietnam were contingent on military success in Vietnam…is key to this debate.” There is one subject that McMahan mentioned (not in the quote), which is relevant to understanding JFK: “napalm bombing” and concentration camps (‘strategic hamlets’) in Vietnam.


Chemical terror in Vietnam

In November of last year, Seymour Hersh was interviewed by The Star saying that JFK was the President “who gave us the first use of napalm against civilian targets in Vietnam,” further explaining that Kennedy “gave us the first use of defoliants against food crops in Vietnam.” Noam Chomsky something similar in a 1996 inteview, noting that “Kennedy attacked South Vietnam, outright” and specifically noted that “in 1961-1962 he sent Air Force to start bombing villages, authorized napalm,” arguing that this “laid the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America with the installation of Neo-Nazi gangsters that were always supported directly by the United States” which was continued by the Johnson administration. I looked into these claims to see if they were true and I found some interesting information along the way.

In November 1961, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent a memorandum to Kennedy, which was shocking when I first read it, which said that the use of defoliant was legal:

“The use of defoliant does not violate any rule of international law concerning the conduct of chemical warfare and is an accepted tactic of war. Precedent has been established by the British during the emergency in Malaya in their use of helicopters for destroying crops by chemical spraying. We will, of course, be the object of an intense Communist “germ warfare” campaign which may be picked up by some neutrals. You will recall that this was the case during the Korean war although the Communist charges had no factual basis whatever. On the other hand, I am satisfied that successful plant-killing operations in VietNam, carefully coordinated with and incidental to larger operations, can be of substantial assistance in the control and defeat of the Viet Cong. Carrying out of the operation will be carefully planned and coordinated between State, Defense, USIA [US Information Agency], CINCPAC [Commander in Chief Pacific], the Country Team, and the GVN [Government of Viet Nam].”

In this memorandum, there are two separate documents that are mentioned. One is the National Security Action Memorandum Number 115 (NSAM No. 115) in November 1961, signed by then National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, declaring that:

“The President had approved the recommendation of the Secretary of State and the Deputy Secretary of Defense to participate in a selective and carefully controlled joint program of defoliant operations in Viet Nam starting with clearance of key routes and proceeding thereafter to food denial only if the most careful basis of resettlement and alternative food supply has been created. Operations in Zone D and the border areas shall not be undertaken until there is realistic possibilities of immediate military exploitation. The President further agreed that there should be a careful and prior consideration and authorization in Washington of any plans developed by CINCPAC [Commander in Chief Pacific] and the country team under this authority before such plans are executed.”

In a draft of McNamara’s memorandum was submitted to the Secretary of State for his signature and US diplomat U. Alexis Johnson who wrote something that conveyed their ‘fears’:

“The key is not making this an operation in itself but carefully coordinating it with and making it an incidental part of larger operations for resettlement of the Montagnards, the setting up of an effective border control force, and the ability to mount an effective military operation in Zone D. We must also stay away from the term ‘chemical warfare’ and any connection with the Chemical Corps, and rather talk about ‘weed killers’. Defense and the Chemical Corps entirely agree on this.”

The second sentence is the most important here, since Johnson was basically saying they the US government should treat chemical warfare as something positive by calling it ‘weed killers.’ Through some searching around, I found a web page about herbicides used in Vietnam, quoting numerous declassified documents, all which were previously Top Secret. These documents included: a memo in early November 1961 from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the President Kennedy on the ‘use of defoliants in V[iet]’Nam’ noting that “if we are going to cope successfully with charges that we are engaged in germ or poison gas warfare, we must make the gen[era]’l character of the ops as open and above board as possible” and recommends going around the ICC and the Geneva Accords, while also noting that the program is estimated to cost up to $70 million in three stages; a memo from the Assistant Director of the Far East on the same subject noting that “the Govt of V[iet]’nam, the US Country Team in Saigon and the Dept of Defense urge employment of defoliant as an effective tactic to hinder VC depredations” but that the “use of chemical weaponry” could create “a storm of criticism” and would make “great propaganda” for Vietnamese communists [4]; and another memo falsely claiming that “these defoliants of the 2-4D variety…is harmless to personnel and animals” and that they “intend to play it in a low key although we feel it will make a definite contribution to counter-guerrilla ops.”

These absurdist statements defending the safety of 2-4D, one of the agents of Agent Orange which was manufactured by Dow Chemical and Monsanto, that the International Agency for Research on Cancer considered in 1987 as one of the many herbicides that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” are only the beginning. During Kennedy’s presidency there was a new “commitment to Vietnam” that included sending in 18,000 advisors (code for troops) and authorizing “the use of napalm (jellied gasoline), defoliants, free fire zones, and jet planes.” There are a number of declassified documents on napalm that are relevant: one saying that in the view of the US State Department “political considerations would suggest limiting use napalm to high priority targets which clearly VC [Vietcong] installations;” another about how there were reports that “during [the] Indochina War napalm [was] considered…as [a] white colonialists’ weapon against yellow ‘natives;’” one diplomat arguing that napalm would “really put the fear of God into the VC and was very effective;” and a conversation where four-star general General Maxwell Taylor argued “that there was no difference between napalm and defoliants” which even disputed by Kennedy himself. Many other documents compiled by the State Department’s Office of the Historian show that South Vietnamese forces used napalm and carried it as well. Andy Piascik, an award-winning author, gave more of the background on the dropping of napalm, writing:

“In Vietnam, a similar approach led to massive devastation. In the winter of 1961-62, Kennedy initiated the full-scale bombing of those parts of South Vietnam controlled by the National Liberation Front (all but Saigon and its immediate surroundings). The justification that bombing was needed to defeat the revolution masked the indiscriminate nature of the aerial assault, which resulted in casualties that were overwhelmingly civilian. And so the tone was set for the next eleven years of war. It was also Kennedy who authorized the first use of Chemicals of Mass Destruction in Southeast Asia, with napalm the best-known and most deadly. Never had chemical warfare been used so extensively, though the U.S. had also used napalm in Korea in the early 1950’s. Again, the tone was established as massive amounts of phosphorous, Agent Orange and other chemicals were used for the rest of the war, chemicals the deadly affects of which are being felt to this day throughout Indochina.”

What Piascik says is a valid and strong analysis, but for the full picture, one must go further. In a statement before a hearing of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, Pacific and the Global Environment on Agent Orange, the former director of the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Resources at the National University of Ha Noi, Vietnam, Vo Quy, explained the affects of Agent Orange. Quy, who had worked on the issue of the use of “US toxic chemicals” from 1971-2008, told the subcommittee that despite what the US Army said, these chemicals were harmful to humans and the environment:

“large forest areas had been destroyed, animals have been killed, and the herbicides sprayed were severely harmful to human[s]…the war ended over 30 years ago, but in Vietnam there remain many large areas affected by toxic chemicals…wartime destruction of the natural landscape is nothing new, but the scope of the destruction of nature in the Vietnam War is unprecedented in human history. The damage to the environment was so intense and widespread that it has given the rise to the term “ecocide”. The attacks on the environment by the US military on a massive scale for so many years, were highly systematic and led to the destruction of many ecosystems in large areas of Vietnam.”

A paper in the April 2003 edition of Nature confirmed what Quy said, noting that “between 1961 and 1971 herbicide mixtures, nicknamed by the coloured identification band painted on their 208-litre storage barrels, were used by United States and Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnamese] forces to defoliate forests and mangroves, to clear perimeters of military installations and to destroy ‘unfriendly’ crops as a tactic for decreasing enemy food supplies.” This same paper noted that these defoliants were dropped by the US Air Force as part of ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ which was part of a bigger program, ‘Operation Trail Dust.’ This program of chemical warfare lasted at least ten years, from 1961 to 1971, spraying “about 19 million gallons of herbicide, 11 million of which consisted of Agent Orange,” most of which fell on “forest of South Vietnam…some was used in Laos, and some killed crops to derive Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops of food.” Clearly the US government is fulfilling what crazed Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore said in Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”


Strategic hamlets in Vietnam

In an interview with The Star, quoted at the beginning of the previous section, Seymour Hersh criticized JFK, but there was one quote which is worth repeating: Hersh says that JFK “was the first president to authorize massive relocation of civilians out of their farms to what they called fortified strategic hamlets — holding pens for human beings.” This is completely correct, as the so-called ‘Strategic Hamlet’ program began under Kennedy, but there is a deeper history.

In February 1959, the Government of South Vietnam began its ‘resettlement’ program to officially counter the Vietcong. The program “relocated Viet Cong…families, people with relatives in North Vietnam, or people who had been associated with the Viet Minh into new villages; thus, providing easier government surveillance” and it also “relocated families that supported the South Vietnamese government into new villages that lived outside the realm of government protection and were susceptible to Viet Cong attacks” as noted in a report prepared by Mr. Curtis Peoples at 4th Triennial Vietnam Symposium in 2002. The ‘Caravelle Manifesto’ which was written by eighteen Vietnamese signers wanted to air their grievances against the government, expressed concern with the program, writing that “thousands of persons are mobilized for exhausting work, compelled to leave their own jobs, homes and families, to participate in the construction of magnificent but useless “agrovilles” which weary them and provoke their disaffection, thus aggravating popular resentment and creating an ideal terrain for enemy propaganda.”

In 1962, after increasing the amount of military advisers in South Vietnam, Kennedy “expressed a favorable disposition” (code for approved) a document called ‘A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam’ written by Roger Hilsman. This document, written February 1962, said that there were over 100,000 Viet Cong “supporters and sympathizers,” that the “Viet Cong’s preferred strategy is one of political denouement” and that they “resort to terror in the areas they control.” In Hilsman’s view this meant that the “struggle for South Vietnam, in sum, is essentially a battle for control of the villages” and that the Viet Cong should be denied “access to the villages and the people.” Most interestingly, the document warns of the “real possibility of coup attempts by elements within South Vietnam,” which successfully happened in November 1963, but it also proposed a “strategic concept for counterinsurgency war among working level Americans in all United States agencies in South Vietnam.” Jumping ahead in the document, the last and final part sets out a three phase plan to “eliminate the Viet Cong from successive areas” with the “creation of strategic villages” and “defended villages” (phase I); extending the zones “of strategic villages to cover the remaining densely populated areas” and having a “stepped-up program of economic and social development” (phase II); and resettling “suitably hardy, loyal and tough villagers” (Phase III).

Eventually, due to corruption, security shortcomings and more, the ‘strategic hamlet’ program was ended in 1964. Even Roger Hilsman, who had proposed the plan in the first place, said later in his life that due to the corruption, the program was “useless, worse than useless, it hastened the end.” Hilsman, also claims that Kennedy “wanted to withdraw” from Vietnam, not end the war.


Kennedy: A militarist at heart

In November 2013, famed environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote an article in Rolling Stone titled ‘John F. Kennedy’s Vision of Peace’ claiming to recall “the fallen president’s attempts to halt the war machine.” Kennedy claimed that JFK’s “greatest ambition as president was to break the militaristic ideology that has dominated our country since World War II” and that JFK: challenged the CIA and “Pentagon brass;” artfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis (he didn’t); was “wary” of conflict in Vietnam only wanting to do it after he was re-elected; was able to “stand up against the national-security apparatus and imagine a different future for America;” and so on. This narrative is not surprising from the nephew of JFK and, as a result, it should be deeply questioned.

American historian and social activist Lawrence Wittner, in his book on the US peace movement during 1941 and 1960, writes about the purported ‘peaceful’ nature of the Kennedy administration. He says that despite the “dissident clamor” of the peace movement, in 1962, in response to JFK’s requests, the budget of the ‘Defense’ Department rose to $50 billion, “nurturing armed forces of approximately 3,000,000 men and a nuclear arsenal of 30,000 megatons” which was 1.5 million more “times [than] the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.”[5] Wittner further writes that his administration relied “upon accelerating military preparations” but that it granted “peace activists a number of small-scale victories” including the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which many were later disillusioned with since it failed “to chart a radically new approach to disarmament,” which was seen as “initially optimistic” by many in the peace movement.[6] As a result, JFK began to “adopt the rhetoric of the peace movement,” that Robert F. Kennedy thinks he truly believed, resulting in the peace activists thinking that they “had achieved a breakthrough at the highest levels of power” with Kennedy on their side allowing parts of the peace movement to easily merge into “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”[7] The delusion of the peace activists was obvious: even though JFK had moved away from Eisenhower’s program of “thermonuclear confrontation and threats of massive retaliation,” this was not a “part of a campaign for disarmament” as many peace activists thought, but rather it was because he “sought to lessen the likelihood of thermonuclear war” while expanding “the nation’s capacity to wage “conventional” conflicts.”[8] As Wittner said, according to these “rules of the war game, H-bombs were out, [and] napalm was in.”

Further research shows that Robert F. Kennedy is throughly mistaken about JFK’s vision of peace and that it was actually the opposite. In 1961, JFK remarked to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that “under no circumstances should we allow a predetermined arbitrary financial limit to establish either strategy or force levels.”[9] Military spending under the Kennedy Administration was always more than half of federal spending, and although the percentage of military spending decreased through the course of the administration (58%in 1963, 60%in 1962, and 54% in 1961), the amount of money spent increased from $57 billion in 1961 to $64.2 billion in 1963, an increase of eleven percent, according to government data. Additionally, according to GPO data, gross national debt increased from $292.6 million in 1961 to $310.3 million in 1963, an increase of almost six percent. By the last year of JFK’s presidency in 1963, the US Department of ‘Defense’ was “taking over one-third of total semiconductor production” and by 1963, the production of 94% of the country’s integrated circuits could be attributed to the Department of ‘Defense.'[10] This confirmed what Kennedy had said in March 1960, that we cannot avoid modernizing America’s military, declaring absurdly it was an “investment in peace” and that “like any other investment, it will be a gamble with our money. But the alternative is to gamble with our lives.”[11]

British journalist and social activist Chris Harman wrote in his book,A People’s History of the World, about the militaristic tendencies of the Kennedy administration. He noted that one of Kennedy’s first actions was to endorse the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, but he went further. He argued that Kennedy “showed no sign of liberalism in his dealings with Cuba” since he and his brother “gave the go-ahead for the CIA to plot with Mafia figures against the Cuban leader’s life” and on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Florida, the “US assembled the largest invasion force since the Second World War—100,000 troops, 90 ships, 68 squadrons of aircraft and eight aircraft carriers.”[12] So much for the idea that Kennedy ‘didn’t’ want to invade Cuba, since he was definitely prepared to do so. Harman continued, writing that “the US government…was prepared to risk nuclear war [with Russia] in order to get the missiles removed” and that “the Kennedy obsession with Cuba was connected to a wider issue—the fear of an erosion of US global hegemony.”[13] In a February 1992 article of the Socialist Review, Harman refuted what he called Oliver Stone’s “alternative myth,” writing that “there certainly was not any major shift in US policy from Kennedy to Johnson,” and that the central theme of John Kennedy’s election campaign in 1960 “was to claim Republican ‘neglect’ had enabled the USSR to get ahead of the US with a ‘missile gap.’” Harman then argued that Kennedy “had a bitter hatred for the Cuban revolution which had overthrown the American-backed dictator Batista at the beginning of 1959” and that he “increased the number of US troops there from 400 to 18,000 and gave the first go ahead for the use of napalm and defoliant in a desperate attempt to prop up the dictator Diem.” American political scientist and social critic Michael Parenti, adds to this in the Fourth Edition of his book,Democracy For the Few. Parenti writes that while in foreign affairs, JFK “spoke of national peace and self-determination of all peoples,” he invaded “Cuba after Castro nationalized the holdings of U.S. corporations” and also “drastically increased military expenditures, instituted new counterinsurgency programs throughout the Third World, and sent troops to Vietnam.”[14]

Looking at his overall policy, it does not have a very ‘peaceful’ picture at all. In interview with Democracy Now!, Matthew Rothschild, who was then the editor of The Progressive told Amy Goodman that back in 1984 the magazine had published “one of the best investigative pieces ever…[the the writer] Allan Nairn [going]…to Central America…and actually talked to some of these death squad leaders, who confessed to him that they were working for the CIA and that the CIA had established these death squads…all the way back to…JFK and Johnson [administrations who]…had financed them, trained them and armed them.” Through a search of the Internet, I was able to find the original story, which told of how the training of Central American death squads started in the Kennedy administration and continued under the Johnson Administration:

in the 1960’s, during the Kennedy Administration, agents of the US government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next fifteen years. These organizations…came to be known as the Salvadoran Death Squads…Up to the early 1960’s, El Salvador’s security forces had been little more than loosely coordinated barracks units in the service of local land owners and political “caudillos.”…That began to change with the Kennedy Administration’s Alliance for Progress, founded on the assumption that national security systems working side by side with capitalist development would preempt communist revolution in Latin America…The landmark event in the formation of the national security apparatus in El Salvador and the rest of Central America was the Declaration of San Jose, issued on March 19, 1963, at the conclusion of a meeting of six Central American presidents. “Communism is the chief obstacle to economic development in the Central American region,” proclaimed President Kennedy, who had chaired the meeting.”

This action is no surprise considering the aggressive foreign policy of the administration as a whole. As noted by William Blum, during the Kennedy years, in Guiana and Japan, perverting of elections was continued, while elections in Brazil and the Dominican Republic in 1962 and Guatemala in 1963 were perverted by the US government.[15] Furthermore, using a report compiled by the Congressional Research Service,I concluded that while “JFK didn’t intervene that many places, he…expand[ed] and continue[d] the war in Vietnam…[by] he increas[ing]…US involvement in the war, start[ing] US involvement in Laos in 1962 which would continue until 1975…[and] he also committed US armed forces to Thailand, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.” Such a policy is consistent with Kennedy’s assertion in a “major Senate speech” in April 1954, conceding that “eventually the United States might have to commit manpower to save Southeast Asia,” but that a war would be “futile and destructive” unless there was “at least a remote possibility of victory.”[16] Later, in 1956, JFK accepted the ideas of the absurdist Domino Theory, an idea articulated by Eisenhower in a 1954 news conference.[17] At one point, the Pentagon Papers even revealed that Kennedy had “approved secret operations to ‘dispatch of agents to North Vietnam’ to engage in ‘sabotage and light harassment.’” Most interesting of all, was that Kennedy had a “fractured relationship with the CIA” which is often noted by apologists, conspiracy theorists and Kennedy lovers, that he still recognized “the usefulness of covert operators and plausible dependability’s lack of presidential fingerprints” as noted by History Is Now Magazine. Hence, he did not want to abolish the CIA, despite his anger toward them following the Bay of Pigs invasion claiming he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces.” According to biographer Michael O’Brien, Kennedy assumed, based on the fact that Eisenhower conducted “covert operations,” that the “secret approach was acceptable presidential conduct” and as a consequence, “overthrowing Castro was also a very personal matter for the Kennedys” with JFK authorizing “two additional powerful secret committees: the Special Group (CI), which focused on counterinsurgency, and Special Group Augmented (SGA), which planned…to subvert Castro’s role in Cuba” [18] Graduate student Jose Palafox adds to this picture in his ‘Review of U.S.-Mexico Border Militarization Discourse‘ wrote that low-intensity conflict or LIC was “originally developed as a response to guerrilla insurgency in the Third World by the Kennedy administration” and that it “reached its full form during the Reagan administration as a counterinsurgency doctrine in Central America in the early 1980s.”


Criticism of Kennedy at the time

It is important to bring the criticisms of Kennedy by those during his presidency and into the Johnson Presidency into the spotlight. In 1962, the well written and thought out Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was a stinging criticism of the Kennedy Administration and its ensuing militaristic policy:

“Defense spending in the Eisenhower era totaled $350 billions and President Kennedy entered office pledged to go even beyond the present defense allocation of sixty cents from every public dollar spent. Except for a war-induced boom immediately after “our side” bombed Hiroshima, American economic prosperity has coincided with a growing dependence on military outlay…Since the Kennedy administration began, the American government seems to have initiated policy changes in the colonial and underdeveloped areas…These were hardly sufficient to heal the scars of past activity and present associations, but nevertheless they were motions away from the Fifties…It has been said that the Kennedy administration did more in two years than the Eisenhower administration did in eight. Of this there can be no doubt….To avoid conflict with the Dixiecrat-Republican alliance, President Kennedy has developed a civil rights philosophy of “enforcement, not enactment”, implying that existing statutory tools are sufficient to change the lot of the Negro…he [JFK] has appointed at least four segregationist judges in areas where voter registration is a desperate need…It seems evident that the President is attempting to win the Negro permanently to the Democratic Party without basically disturbing the reactionary one-party oligarchy in the South…under Kennedy we have seen first-strike and second-strike weapons, counter-military and counter-population inventions, tactical atomic weapons and guerrilla warriors, etc.”

The statement continues on, making a pointed critique of numerous Kennedy Administration policies. Lest us forget the irony of JFK’s actions, since he spoke against imperialism, saying that the enemy of freedom was “Soviet imperialism and whether, we like it or not…Western imperialism,” further elaborating that “our traditional and deeply felt philosophy of freedom and independence to peoples everywhere” in 1957, while four years later he would lead the world’s biggest imperial power.[19] Myra Tanner Weiss, who was, as Theodore Edwards put it , “one of the most effective and brilliant spokespersons for the U.S. Trotskyist movement,” had a even more radical criticism than SDS. In the Winter 1962 edition of the International Socialist Review, Weiss wrote about the history of Kennedy, focusing on his positions as a candidate and his policies as the president:

“The dominant theme of Kennedy’s election campaign, however, was not integrity, but peace. He undoubtedly won the support of the largest of the minority groups of American voters by virtue of his speeches on the need for peace…As a candidate Kennedy created the image of a man who was deeply sensitive to the sufferings of Americans less fortunate than himself…Kennedy was no novice as a capitalist politician. He was aware that many voters have become cynical about campaign promises over the years….To understand Kennedy both as a candidate and as President, it is necessary to begin with the self-evident fact that he is a capitalist politician. He probably believes that peace, full-employment and broad economic progress can be realized under capitalism….Kennedy, like most historically conscious proponents of capitalism, sees an ideal economic system…thus permitting continuous enrichment of the deserving few without the impoverishment of the majority…Basically a capitalist politician, Kennedy also is the son of a millionaire. The profit system has been very good to him…Kennedy’s real occupation in the White House was revealed in his speech to the National Association of Manufacturers on Dec. 6, 1961. Here the President and the millionaire were merged into one…the American people, with their tax money, spend annually about $3 billion abroad for military bases designed to protect this capital and keep the profits rolling into the pockets of the American rich. As a result of this and other factors, the US has suffered a payments deficit.”

In the speech that Weiss references, Kennedy made a bold statement about his presidency. He told the National Association of Manufacturers, a conservative business lobby, that “I believe that we can have a period, in the next few years, of cooperation between business and government in order to advance the common interest,” that he is committed “to the free flow of capital,” and claimed that “capitalism is on trial as we debate these issues.” Kennedy went on to explain specific programs he’d implement, but there’s no need to go into specifics. Years later in 1980, American Communist, Jim Woods, wrote an article in Unity in 1980, saying why he wouldn’t vote for Carter, but he also criticized JFK, writing that he “mistakenly voted for John Kennedy for President” in 1960 as a ‘lesser evil’ but that after Kennedy got into office, he used his electoral ‘mandate’ “to invade Cuba” and that “wiretapping, covert CIA operations, anti-labor bills, Green Beret infiltration into Viet Nam” followed in the Kennedy administration, making him disillusioned. In 1963, the editors of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly also displayed their criticism, writing that “Kennedy took power determined to regroup the imperialist forces and to roll back the national liberation and socialist forces by means of an integrated and many-sided counter-offensive,” and argued that “Kennedy has stepped up the Cold War and resorted to crisis-manufacturing, at the risk of unleashing a nuclear holocaust, in order to meet both crises at once,” all while in their view, “Kennedy has tried, with some success, to cover his aggression.”

Theodore Edwards, whose real name was Edmond Kovacs, worked as part of the Socialist Workers Party, had a stinging criticism of the Kennedy administration, writing that the “Kennedy administration continues to support every reactionary or counter-revolutionary ruling clique in the under-developed countries of the world under the guise of fighting ‘communism.’” He further wrote that

“…the Kennedy administration has shown no hesitancy in resorting to clandestine CIA maneuvers, military shows-of-force, or outright armed intervention…The Western imperialists are not the only international force intervening in Southeast Asia. Since World War II, the Soviet bureaucracy has been applying its interpretation of “peaceful co-existence” to the Indo-Chinese revolution…The Kennedy administration has dropped any pretense of “reforming” Diem’s regime…the Kennedy administration has thrown its full weight behind Diem’s reign of terror…As of now, US imperialism seems little disposed to any kind of compromise….The real face that the Kennedy administration presents to the masses of Asia can be seen in the brutal war it is conducting in South Vietnam without any authorization from the American people.”

One of the harsher criticisms was by the editors of the International Socialist Reviewwriting that “Although Kennedy promised a far more vigorous and effective administration when he entered the White House in 1961, he had made little progress by the end of 1963” and they further wrote that “Johnson has set a target of five million more jobs, but, like Kennedy, is opposed to a shorter work week which might counteract some of the worst effects of automation.” In the last lines of their opinion piece struck me because they verged on being hostile:

“He [the President] alone can order the button to be pressed that can doom us all. Kennedy was prepared to risk such a decision in the confrontation with the Kremlin in October of last year. The assassin’s bullet has now shifted that life-and-death power to the man from Texas. It is extremely doubtful that the world feels safer as a result.”

In 1967, in his book, An introduction to neo-colonialism, “open communist” Jack Woddis, continued this harsh criticized the Alliance For Progress, which is seen as one of JFK’s ‘achievements.’ He wrote in part that this Alliance has “has equally proved to be a means of increasing the exploitation of the continent in the interests of foreign capital” [20] and he further wrote, that based on the statements of those that supported it, and his own view, that:

“…This was, in every way, an alliance for neo-colonialism. Its aim was to carry through, over a period of ten years, 1961-1970, a “peaceful revolution” in order to avoid a real revolution which would end United States economic and political domination over Latin America. It was intended to introduce agrarian reform, and to establish some elements of “representative democracy”, the stranglehold of feudalism being weakened and replaced by a stunted, halfway form of capitalism…the Alliance…was a neo-colonialist device for forestalling revolutionary change. Its intentions…were counter-revolutionary….[it also] had the limited aim of patching up the system so as to safeguard American economic and political interests.” [21]

He further added that “…The very failure of the Alliance for Progress has led the United States to make a new attempt to press ahead with its military plans for counter-revolution in Latin-America. These plan…take two main forms: moves to establish counter-guerrilla forces, and the creation of a continental military force for Latin America controlled by the United States.” [22]

Woddis’s criticism is reinforced by what the writings of Chris Harman. He notes that the US government saw “Vietnam as among many where it was using ‘advisers’ to organise military actions against opposition forces” in the early 1960s, and describes the ‘Alliance for Progress’ as “a US government programme designed to stablilise Latin America…[that] seemed to have been successful in stopping a repetition of the Cuban Revolution, and guerrilla movements in Venezuela, Guatemala, Bolivia and elsewhere were defeated.”[23] He further writes that the US made sure elections didn’t occur in South Vietnam, and survival of the government in that part of Vietnam “depended on increasing amounts of US support,” since after all, there were 18,000 military ‘advisers’ by Kennedy’s assassination, which is 45 times what it was when Kennedy got into office (400 ‘advisers’).

All of these radicals rightly criticize the militarism of the Kennedy Administration and how it attacked national liberation movements worldwide, especially on the left, even if I do not generally agree with the substance of their criticisms. While their positions are within the radical left, the views of these American radicals gives a glimpse at criticisms of Kennedy and challenges the glorification of Kennedy, which is needed now more than even ever.



[1] Chomsky, N. (2007). Now That the War Has Begun. Interventions (p. 21). San Francisco: City Lights Books.
[2] Schlesinger, A., Serow, A. G., & Ladd, E. G. (2007). 32. From The Imperial Presidency. The Lanthan Readings in the American Polity (Fourth Edition ed., p. 208). Baltimore: Lanthan Publishers, Inc. For clarification, Serow and Ladd are editors of the book, which is a collection of selections of political writings and Schlesinger is the author of the piece.
[3] Zinn, H., & Arnove, A. (2002). The Need for Dissent. Terrorism and war (Seven Stories Press First Edition ed., p. 75). New York: Seven Stories Press.
[4] As turned out, such statements would be correct. As the U.S. State Department noted in their ‘narrative’ before the reproduction of the Geneva Protocol (US ratified it in 1975), they note: “In 1966 the Communist countries strongly criticized the United States for using tear gas and chemical herbicides in Vietnam. In the General Assembly, Hungary charged that the use in war of these agents was prohibited by the Geneva Protocol and other provisions of international law.”
[5] Wittner, L. S. (1969). Epilogue. Rebels against war; the American peace movement, 1941-1960 (pp. 276-77). New York: Columbia University Press.
[6] Ibid, 277.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 278.
[9] Rabin, J., Hildreth, W.B., and Miller, G.J. (2007). Handbook of Public Administration (Third Edition, p. 1163). Boca Roca, FL: CRC Press.
[10] Phillips, K. (2002). Friends in Rich Places. Wealth and democracy: a political history of the American rich (p. 246). New York: Broadway Books. Funny enough, this book was recommended by Citigroup analysts in the infamous 2005-6 memos.
[11] Frost, D.B. (2013). John F. Kennedy in Quotations: A Topical Dictionary, with Source (p. 149). Jefferson, NC: McFaraland and Company
[12] Harman, C. (2008). Cold War. A people’s history of the world (Third Edition ed., pp. 568-570). London: Verso.
[13] Ibid
[14] Parenti, M. (1983). The President: Guardian of the System. Democracy for the few (Fourth Edition ed., p. 265). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
[15] Sardar, Z., & Davies, M. W. (2002). Chapter Four. American Hamburgers and Other Viruses. Why do people hate America? (p. 110). New York: Disinformation.
[16] O’Brien, M. (2005). John F. Kennedy: A Biography (p. 353). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
[17]. Ibid, 355. In his 1954 news conference, Eisenhower >remarked that if Vietnam fell to communism, so would the rest of Southeast Asia: “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
[18] O’Brien, p. 649.
[19] Ibid, 357-9.
[20] Woddis, J. (1969). An introduction to neo-colonialism: The New Imperialism in Asia, Africa & Latin America (p. 103). London: Lawrence & Wishart. (Original work published 1967).
[21] Ibid, 104-105.
[22] Ibid, 112-113.
[23] Harman, C. (2008). Cold War. A people’s history of the world (Third Edition ed., pp. 571). London: Verso.

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