Wednesday, 04 May 2022 18:03

JFK VS LBJ: The MSM in Overdrive

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The efforts by the mainstream media to malign the accomplishments and legacy of President Kennedy continue in force almost 60 years after his death, so Jim DiEugenio expands his new series thwarting the LBJ apologists and hagiographers by examining the background and work of Mark Updegrove as part of these efforts and correcting the many flaws in his historical comprehension.

As our readers know, I just did a two-part review of the very poor CNN four-part special about Lyndon Johnson, largely modeled on the work of Joe Califano. As an honest appraisal of Johnson’s presidency, that program was simply unforgiveable, both in regard to Johnson’s domestic and foreign policy. (Click here for details) Concerning the latter, it actually tried to say that Johnson did not decide to go to war in Indochina until after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had passed. Since LBJ used that resolution as an act of war, most of us would fail to see the logic in that, but that is how desperate CNN and the production company, Bat Bridge Entertainment, were in trying to salvage Johnson’s reversal of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan and decision to enter a disastrous war in Vietnam. That war plunged America into a ten-year-long struggle that resulted in epic tragedy for both Indochina and the USA.

Mark Updegrove was one of the talking heads on that program, as well as one of its executive producers. Updegrove was the director of the LBJ Library for eight years. He is now the president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation in Austin. He began his career in magazine publishing. He was the publisher of Newsweek and president of Time/Canada. He was that latter magazine’s Los Angeles manager, but he was also VP in sales and operations for Yahoo and VP/ publisher for MTV Magazine. In other words, Updegrove has long been a part of the MSM.

I could not find any evidence that Mark is a credentialed historian. All I could discover is that he had a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Maryland. I don’t think it is improper to question whether or not a man should be running a presidential library if he is neither an historian nor an archivist. The writing of history is a much different discipline than being a publisher or running business operations. At its fundamental base, it means the willingness to spend hours upon hours going through declassified documents, supplementing that with field investigation, and also tracing hard to find witnesses. Then, when that travail is over, measuring the value of what one has found.

It is not an easy task to write valuable history, especially of the revisionist type that bucks the MSM, for the simple reason that revisionist history that challenges hallowed paradigms is not a good path to career advancement. The much safer path is what the late Stephen Ambrose did. When a friend of his did discover powerful evidence which demanded a revisionist reconstruction about World War II, Ambrose first befriended him and then—measuring the costs to his career—turned on him. That is the kind of behavior that gets you business lunches with people like Tom Hanks. (James DIEugenio, The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today, pp. 45–48)

As I reviewed at length and proved with many examples, the aim of the above CNN series was to somehow elevate Johnson’s rather poor performance as president over the space of five years. It was a presidency that was so violent, corrosive, and polarizing that the late Philip Roth wrote a memorable book about its enduring and pernicious impact on the United States. There were many instances that I did not even deal with in my two-part review of that series, for example the overthrow in Brazil and the forcing out of George Papandreou in Greece in 1965. Who can forget Johnson’s rather direct reply to the protestations of the Greek ambassador in the latter case:

Then listen to me Mr. Ambassador: fuck your Parliament and your Constitution. America is the elephant. They may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good…We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me talk about Democracy, Parliament, and Constitutions, he, his Parliament, and his Constitution may not last very long. (William Blum, The CIA: A Forgotten History, p. 244)

As William Blum shows in his book, Johnson was true to his word.

Because of the above, it is not an easy job to somehow whitewash and then rehabilitate Johnson the man and Johnson the president, especially because LBJ followed President John Kennedy and almost systematically reversed much of his foreign policy, with so many debilitating results. In his film JFK: Destiny Betrayed, Oliver Stone showed those actions in relation to Indochina, Congo, the Middle East, and Indonesia. That film also tried to show how Kennedy was also working on modes of détente with both Cuba and the USSR. These were both abandoned by the new president.

Apparently Updegrove is well aware of how poorly Johnson does in a comparison with Kennedy. He has now written a book about Kennedy. Because of his longtime relations with Time magazine, he got them to do what is essentially a preview/promo for that book. (See Time online April 26, 2022, story by Olivia Waxman.)

To see where Updegrove’s book Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency is coming from, one can simply read the italicized intro to his own summary. Waxman writes that since 1963, there have been “myths and misunderstandings” about JFK and the early “gunning down” of the handsome leader caused some of this “continued fascination.” Waxman then lets Updegrove, who is not an historian, take charge with these words:

History in its most cursory form is a beauty contest and, as we look at John F. Kennedy, he’s a perfect President for the television age, because he shows up so well and speaks so elegantly.

Who needs to read the book? We have seen this infomercial so many times by the MSM that reading the book is superfluous. Kennedy was the glamour president. He was handsome, exquisitely tailored, a good speaker, and witty. This was what made him an icon in history, but he really did not have any notable achievements behind him. It was all glitz. And then Updegrove begins that part of the MSM formula: the belittlement of JFK, the so called myths and misunderstandings that caused the continued fascination with Kennedy the president. Mark chooses three areas to hone in on for his attack.

The Missile Crisis

He begins by saying that the first myth is that “JFK won the Cuban Missile Crisis by staring down the Soviets.” Updegrove then writes that the true cause of the crisis was that the Russians knew they were at a large atomic disadvantage and also that the USA had offensive missiles in Turkey. Therefore, this was not just “recklessness on the part of Nikita Khrushchev,” it “was really more of a calculated risk.” The risk being to get the missiles removed from Turkey. He says the world did not know about the Turkish agreement at the time. I would beg to disagree and you can find my basis for disagreement in the following story from the New York Times in late November of 1962. The agreement about Turkey was out and known in the public at that time. Unlike what Updegrove wants to maintain, most understood what the main terms of the agreement were. But further, to say that was the basis of the agreement is to ignore that the Russians had about ten times as many missiles in Cuba as the USA did in Turkey. (Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 60)

I would, however, also disagree with him on two other more important points. First, JFK’s achievement in the Missile Crisis was not a “stare down”. It was avoiding a nuclear conflagration. Anyone who reads the book The Kennedy Tapes will understand that JFK took the least provocative and least risky alternative that was offered him: the blockade. Many others in the meetings recommended bombing the missile silos or an outright invasion of Cuba. Both Kennedys were asking about the former: Would that not create a lot of casualties? (May and Zelikow, p. 66) Kennedy became rather disenchanted with that option.

What Kennedy did was opt for the blockade, which also gave the Kremlin time to think about what they were doing. This neutralized the hawks in both camps. And I should not have to tell Updegrove how angry and upset the Joint Chiefs were with that choice. General Curtis LeMay accused Kennedy of appeasement and compared what he was doing to what Neville Chamberlain did at Munich with the Nazis. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, p. 57)

But what is important here in regard to Updegrove is that in reading the transcripts, Johnson was siding with the hawks. At a meeting on October 27, 1962—towards the end of the crisis when Kennedy was trying to corral the confidence of his advisors for an agreement—Johnson was not on board. He said, “My impression is that we’re having to retreat. We’re backing down.” He then said we made Turkey insecure, and also Berlin:

People feel it. They don’t know why they feel it and how. But they feel it. We got a blockade and we’re doing this and that and the Soviet ships are coming through. (May and Zelikow p. 587)

He then said something even more provocative in referring to a U2 plane shot down by Cuba, “The Soviets shot down one plane and the Americans gave up Turkey. Then they shoot down another and the Americans give up Berlin.” (Ibid, p. 592) He then got more belligerent. He said that, in light of this, what Khrushchev was doing was dismantling the foreign policy of the United States for the last 15 years, in order to get the missiles out of Cuba. He topped off that comment by characterizing Kennedy’s attitude toward that dismantlement like this: “We’re glad and we appreciate it and we want to discuss it with you.” (ibid, p. 597) It’s reading things like that which makes us all grateful Kennedy was president at that time.

This is what Kennedy’s achievement really was, not taking this crackpot hawkish advice and instead working toward a peaceful solution that would satisfy everyone. And with this on the table, we can now fully understand Updegrove’s next point.

The Vietnam War

Updegrove says it was a myth that Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam. In his article, he ignores the fact that Kennedy had already given the order to begin that withdrawal with NSAM 263. He then pens a real howler: Kennedy did not tell any of his military advisors about his intent to withdraw. I could barely contain myself when I read that, but this is how desperate one gets when trying to argue this point, which has been proven through the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) beyond any reasonable doubt.

Most people would consider Robert McNamara a military advisor; after all he was the Secretary of Defense running the Pentagon. Roswell GIlpatric was McNamara’s deputy. In an oral history, he said McNamara told him that Kennedy had given him instructions to start winding down American involvement in Vietnam. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 371) McNamara then conveyed this instruction to General Harkins, another military man, at a conference in Saigon in 1962. McNamara told Harkins to begin to form a plan to turn full responsibility for the conflict over to South Vietnam. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 120) In May of 1963, Harkins and all departments in Vietnam—military, CIA, State—submitted those withdrawal plans to McNamara. I showed the documents of this conference on a Fox special last year. I said, as anyone can see, everyone there knew Kennedy was withdrawing and there was no serious dissent, since they knew it was the path the president had chosen. (See the program JFK: The Conspiracy Continues) These documents were declassified by the ARRB in late 1997, so they have been out there for well over 20 years.

But further, the Board also declassified the discussions Kennedy had with his advisors in October of 1963, when the withdrawal plan was being implemented. At that time, Kennedy and McNamara overruled all objections to the withdrawal by people like National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Joint Chiefs Chairman Max Taylor. Again, Taylor was another military man. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 2017 edition, pp. 410–11). Finally, when McNamara was leaving the Pentagon, he did a debrief interview. There, he said that he and Kennedy had agreed that America could help, supply, and advise Saigon in the war effort, but America could not fight the war for them. Therefore, once that advisement was completed, America was leaving; and it did not matter if Saigon was winning or losing: we were getting out. (Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger, p. 166)

Johnson is a liability for Updegrove here also. He knew all of this. And he objected to it. In a February 1964 discussion with McNamara, he bares his objection to Kennedy’s plan for withdrawal. He says he sat there silent thinking, what the heck is McNamara doing withdrawing from a war he is losing. (Blight, p. 310)

I really do not see how it gets any clearer than that.

JFK and Civil Rights

I just did a long review of this issue on Aaron Good’s series American Exception. Updegrove uses the hoary cliché that Kennedy came late to the issue and “he refused to do anything on a proactive basis relating to civil rights.” Both of these are utterly false and, again, LBJ ends up being a liability for Updegrove.

In 1957, President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon sent a mild, nebulous bill to Capitol Hill to create a pretty much toothless Civil Rights Commission. Neither man gave a damn about civil rights. In fact, Eisenhower had advised Earl Warren to vote again the Brown vs Board case. (Click here for details) The reason they did this was because Governor Orville Faubus had just humiliated the president over the crisis at Little Rock, so this was a way of salvaging the president’s image. The other reason was that the GOP wanted to split the Democratic Party between the northern liberals and the southern conservatives, and this was a way to do it.

In order to minimize that split, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson watered the bill down even more, to the point that Senator Kennedy did not want to vote for it. Johnson had to lobby him to do so. Finally, JFK relented after his advisors told him it would be better than nothing. Prior to this, for 20 years, LBJ had voted against every civil rights bill ever introduced on the Hill. And he did so on the doctrine of States Rights, echoing John Calhoun. The reason he relented this time was that he knew he could not run for president as a veteran segregationist. This was what had crippled his mentor Richard Russell’s presidential ambitions. Contrary to what Updegrove writes, this is why Kennedy was so eager to get to work on this issue in 1961.

Kennedy had hired Harris Wofford, attorney for the Civil Rights Commission, as a campaign advisor. After his election, he asked Wofford to prepare a summary of what to do with civil rights once he was inaugurated. Wofford told him that he would not be able to get an omnibus civil rights bill through congress his first year and probably not in his second year either. This was primarily due to the power of the southern filibuster in the Senate, but what he could do was act through executive orders, the courts, and the Justice Department, in order to move the issue. And then that could build momentum for a bill in his third year. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, pp. 44–50)

Kennedy followed that advice just about to the letter. To say that Kennedy did nothing proactive on civil rights until 1963 is bad even for Updegrove. On his first day in office, Kennedy began to move towards the first law on affirmative action. (Bernstein, pp. 52–53). He signed such an executive order in March of 1961, saying that every department of the government must now enact affirmative action rules. He later extended this to any contracting with the government. In other words, if a company did business with say the State Department, that company also had to follow affirmative action guidelines. This was a huge breakthrough. Since now, for example, textile factories in the south had to hire African Americans to make uniforms for the Navy.

Bobby Kennedy made a speech at the University of Georgia Law Day in 1961. He said that, unlike Eisenhower, this administration would enforce the Brown vs. Board decision. Therefore, the White House went to work trying to force all higher education facilities in the South to integrate their classes. They did this through restrictions on grants in aid and money for federal research projects. Universities like Clemson and Duke now had to integrate classes.

Through the court system, Kennedy forced the last two reluctant universities in the South to accept African American applicants. This was James Meredith at Ole Miss in 1962 and Vivian Malone and James Hood at Alabama in 1963. When the Secretary of Education in Louisiana resisted the Brown decision, Bobby Kennedy indicted him. When Virginia tried to circumvent Brown by depriving funds to school districts, the Kennedys decided to build a school district from scratch with private funds. (Click here for details)

Kennedy strongly believed that voting rights was very important in this struggle. He therefore raised funds to finance voting drives and moved to strike down poll taxes in the south. (Bernstein, pp. 68–69). All of this, and more, was before his landmark speech on civil rights in June of 1963. You can ignore all of this if you just say well Kennedy was not proactive on the issue, but that is not being honest with the reader.

In my opinion, it is no coincidence that the CNN series was broadcast about a month before Updegrove’s book came out. And the book was accompanied by articles in Time and People and various appearances on cable TV.

If you did not know by now, that coupling shows we are up against a coordinated campaign, but the other side will not admit that.

Last modified on Friday, 20 May 2022 04:51
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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