Tuesday, 23 April 2024 18:51

Four Died Trying, Chapter One

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Former history professor Jerry Fresia comments on the first installment of the distinguished series by Libby Handros and John Kirby on the four major assassinations of the sixties, the circumstances surrounding them, and their impact on history.

Four Died Trying is a mini-series streaming on Amazon and Apple TV, on the four major political assassination of the sixties: John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Jim DiEugenio wrote a review of the Prologue to this series at his Substack site. Please read that before your read this.

Chapter One of Four Died deals with the era of the fifties. In other words this installment was meant to lay in the backdrop of what was changed and how those attempts at change were then themselves stopped and rolled back. The main talking heads in this chapter are Bobby Kennedy Jr., Oliver Stone, author Mark Crispin Miller and screenwriter Zachary Sklar.

The view taken by the narrative is that of, let us call it, “The Haunted Fifties”, the title of an I. F Stone book on the subject. The chapter concentrates on the fear of communism, of being accused of being a communist, and the rise and fall of Senator Joe McCarthy. In accordance with the last, Kennedy talks about his grandfather’s relationship with the senator and how this led to his father’s initial service on McCarthy’s committee. After a few months, RFK switched over to the Democratic side and – although the film does not show it – he was instrumental in causing the senator’s downfall.

Professor Miller goes into how, in 1947, President Truman was maneuvered into making government employees sign loyalty oaths. This was Executive Order 9835, which mandated there be a loyalty investigation of persons entering as employees of any department of the executive branch of the national government. The film then comments on how this policy was proven to be unwarranted since the FBI had infiltrated the communist party in America to the point that any meeting had as many informants as it did communists. Yet many people were unjustly harassed: the film makes the talented actor and singer Paul Robeson a prime example.


From here, the film goes into the Hollywood sideshow set up by the House on Unamerican Activities, featuring people like Richard Nixon. Zachary Sklar’s father was a victim of all this and Sklar vividly describes how fearful the writer was of a visit by the FBI and being called as a witness before the committee – as one of his writing partners, Albert Maltz, was. Some of the clips, particularly of actors Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, are rather nauseating in their obsequiousness. The film gives the Hollywood Ten case its proper due, especially the plight of writer Dalton Trumbo, who, with the help of producer Kirk Douglas and ultimately President John F. Kennedy – who went to a theater to see the Trumbo/Douglas film Spartacus – finally broke the Hollywood backlist. The film shows a rather rare clip of baseball player Jackie Robinson, who unlike Menjou and Taylor, managed to keep some of his dignity in the face of this charade.

The film also includes some of the artistic reactions to McCarthyism, e.g. director Don Siegel’s classic allegory disguised as a sci-fi thriller film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Professor Miller aptly comments on how the pressure got to the point that it was almost like the Bill of Rights was on trial. Perhaps this point should have been made more explicitly: that it was not and is not illegal to be a communist. At least not according to the First Amendment. And if this point had been delineated more strongly then perhaps the film could have dovetailed into a larger theme, that is how The Fifties was really a kind of “make believe” era, one for which the perfect figurehead was President Dwight Eisenhower. One in which a rising economic tide masked the serious problems ignored at home, and a marked tendency to use the CIA to intervene in the Third World abroad.

The title of the series is so evocative and Chapter One, which is not long – just under 40 minutes—is rich on foreshadowing. So yes, the chapter is worth watching, especially if one is unfamiliar with the anti-communist sturm und drang of the 50s.


The chapter begins dramatically and suggestively. Each of the four murdered political leaders are seen speaking, one by one, on TV screens. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a gunshot can be heard, the screen goes to complete static and the image of the speaker disappears. JFK is first. He can be heard saying “Not a Pax Americana enforced by American weapons of war.” Then Bam! He’s gone. Then Malcolm appears: “People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change, a better world has to be built.” Bam! Malcom is gone. We see bombs being dropped over Vietnam. MLK, Jr. is speaking, “The bombs in Vietnam explode home. They destroyed the dream and the possibility for a decent America.” Bam! Martin is gone. Finally, RFK appears and says, “Cannot continue to deny and postpone the demands of our own people.” Bam! TV goes to static. RFK is gone too.

These are the four who died trying. But we aren’t told in this chapter what each of them did to warrant being murdered and what the shared trying consists of specifically. The chapter works better as an unfolding, ominous, wait-and-see decade.

The characterization of postwar America presented to the viewer is an America hell bent on developing a massive military arsenal to combat an evil empire. Director John Kirby’s use of old propaganda film, which scared the daylights out of Americans back then, is effective in making the propagandists sound and look ridiculous today. But the reality of the impact of the propaganda, hysterical though it may seem today, is not lost on the viewer. The fear ginned up that the Russians were about to end civil liberties in America had a near totalitarian quality about it. The set up seductively invites the viewer to yearn for that knight in shining armor to save us all from this American styled, glitzy – America is nothing if not beautiful things to buy – star-spangled neo-fascism.

The centerpiece in this tableau are several clips of Eisenhower’s well known Farewell Address where he warned citizens of the rising power and presence in American life of the “military industrial complex” (MIC). Kennedy, Jr. is brought in to concur: The MIC “would hollow out the middle class” and “direct” [America] toward constant wars.”

Eisenhower’s warning becomes more ominous: the MIC represents “misplaced power” that “endangers our liberty and democratic processes.” In fact, Eisenhower concludes that the MIC has penetrated so thoroughly into the American way of life that it has become the very “structure of our society.” Against this tale of America on the ropes, RFK, Jr. provides a bit of foreshadowing that is more specific: the “whole administration” of his uncle, JFK, “was a battle with his own military brass and the intelligence apparatus.”

Amid this intensity of American ideological managing during the 50s, NYU Professor Miller (who is used throughout as a commentator), explains that because the USSR was “shattered” following WWII, the Soviet Union, actually posed no real military threat to the US. However, Miller wishes to make clear that, “There is no doubt the US was now up against a totalitarian enemy, whose history of bloodshed and oppression is beyond question.” But hold on: There is a real threat to our civil liberties, but not from the Russians themselves but from the anti-communists behind McCarthyism. As Miller explains, “There was no chance that …[the totalitarian enemy] could extend to this country and in any way threaten American democracy. It was the anti-communists who did that.”

Indeed, Kirby and producer Libby Handros are onto something. We need to be aware of the machinations of the far right, especially when they have the guns and/or the power.


One of the many fifties propaganda film voices lets us know that “the main target of the American communists has been labor.” Now there’s something that could provide a clue as to what is going on beneath the surface. The far right aren’t just a collection of madmen and women. As owners of the country they have material interests. So I took a quick look to see what animated the first Red Scare.

Something that may have been added to the context was what many feel was a prime motivation for the first Red Scare, that is the rise of unions in America. With FDR as president, hundreds of socialists and communists coopted the labor movement and were among the militants pushing for the organization of labor in the industrial sectors of the economy. Consequently, the 30’s saw the greatest growth of unions in American history. Along with numerous social programs, a middle class was being created. And with marginal income tax rates above 90 percent and corporate tax rates above 50%, capitalist were not just on the defensive, they were apoplectic.[1]

Further, the accomplishments of socialists and communists in the 30s helped build the very middle class that RFK Jr is worried about being “hollowed out.” And to cite one other example of concrete success, because of the pressure organized by A. Philip Randolph, an early supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that opened the defense industry to black workers.[2]


Can the situation following WWII be explained by ideology alone? The US did become the world-wide hegemonic power. It inherited, in a certain respect, the colonies of the western world lost during the war. And it was the very rise of the left and the democratic forces and their collision with the burgeoning American empire that explains why the ruling class in 1947 was extremely fearful and why, subsequently, they felt compelled to instill fear among ordinary citizens over the fraudulent Russian presence within the US., which is what Miller is trying to elucidate.

In the period of 1945-1946, the fired-up union members, many socialists and communists, in a massive outpouring of militancy, struck industries across the nation. More than five million workers were involved and these strikes lasted four times longer than those strikes during the war. “They were the largest strikes in American labor history.”[3]

The government lost no time in retaliating. The Taft-Hartley Act followed quickly, as did Truman’s loyalty program, both in 1946. The Taft-Hartley Act established new restrictions on labor organizing and was quickly passed. Truman’s Loyalty Program forced employees of the Federal Government to sign oaths declaring that they did not have “sympathetic association” with Communists.[4] This is not to suggest that these acts were due to labor struggles alone. There were many important international acts as well that helped the government in intensifying the fear of the Soviet Union, not the least of which was Winston’s Churchill declaring, also in 1946, that an “Iron Curtain” had descended around Europe.

As I have mentioned, Chapter One begins with Eisenhower warning Americans of the implications of the rise of the MIC. But if you listen closely and if you look for his explanation as to why this rise took place, he merely states that the US was “compelled”, with no explanation.

When asked to explain US foreign policy, Michael Parenti, taking into account the imperatives of a capitalist economy noted:

“The goal is to support all those countries, leaders, and movements that welcome in multinational corporate investors, that open up their land, their labor, their markets and their natural resources to the expropriation and exploitation by these rich people. A side of the same goal is to obliterate or wipe out or undermine any leader, political movement, or nation that tries to develop its own land, labor, and resources for itself.”[5]

In 1947, the CIA was established. In this postwar year of turmoil, the CIA identified former colonial uprisings or national liberation movements as the most important challenge facing the US. We know JFK was both in support of anti-colonial movements and in favor of peace, but “not a Pax Americana enforced by American weapons of war.” Notice how the analysis changes when we link Kennedy’s peace ambition to the specifics of US foreign policy identified by Parenti. The quest for peace suddenly becomes quite edgy, terrifying, enormously subversive, complex, and risky. Is this sort of quest that may not be possible given the structure of the general foreign policy outlined above. Is Kennedy impossible?

Chapter One, is good as far as it goes, particularly as a foreshadowing instrument. I appreciate the trajectory or arc of the series plan. There are many moving parts which need to be brought together and I look forward to seeing how the producers and writers manage that task. Clearly a new perspective is in the offing. I only hope that it is edgy, that it does not ignore the sacred cows, and that it locates the threat they posed in the context of the American political economy. We owe that much to those who died trying.



[2] https://inthesetimes.com/article/a-philip-randolph-march-on-washington

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_strike_wave_of_1945%E2%80%931946

[4] I would assume that a “small c” communist would be anyone who identified with communist philosophy. Suspect but probably not a target. Whereas, “capital c” Communist indicates that the person in question is a member of a Communist Party.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUkwpVXaytc&ab_channel=TS%2FALCOLLECTIVE

Last modified on Sunday, 28 April 2024 02:04
Jerry Fresia

To be updated.

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