Tuesday, 28 April 2015 21:09

Andrew Cohen, Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History

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What could have been an important and sterling volume is seriously compromised with a lot of litter. Instead of being up there with Rakove and Muehlenbeck, it stands a couple of steps downward, with Thurston Clarke’s mixed bag of nuts, concludes Jim DiEugenio.




Andrew Cohen had a fine idea for a book.  How many people realize that John Kennedy’s famous “peace speech” at American University—in which he tried to break the vise-like grip of the Cold War-- was followed up the next evening by his nearly as famous address on race.  In this one he made the first moral appeal to break the bonds of racism and segregation since Abraham Lincoln. I would be willing to wager that even most informed readers did not recall that the two milestone speeches were made in such close proximity to each other.  In fact, this reviewer—who knows a thing or two about Kennedy’s presidency-- did not realize the two speeches were delivered within 48 hours of each other. Yet they were.

The first one was delivered at around midday on June 10, 1963. (Click here http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkamericanuniversityaddress.html)  Kennedy’s equally epochal address, making segregation a moral issue, was delivered the following evening at 8 PM in the east.  In other words, Kennedy became both the first president to publicly try and soften the grip of the Cold War by proposing rapprochement with the Soviet Union; the next day he was the first president in a century to publicly say America had a serious race problem, and that he was now sending legislation to congress to break the barriers of segregation everywhere. (Click here to read that speech http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkcivilrights.htm)

But as Cohen points out, it was not just Kennedy’s courage and boldness in addressing these two highly charged issues that make their closeness to each other so remarkable.  It is not even the fact that Ted Sorenson was the major wordsmith in crafting each address.  What really makes them notable is the fact that they were not just examples of the president using the bully pulpit; they weren’t just speeches. In both cases, Kennedy acted upon the sentiments he was expressing.  And he did so with alacrity.  By the end of the year, Kennedy had signed onto the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, gotten the Russians to do the same, and shepherded the treaty through congress.  By the time of his death, Kennedy had submitted his civil rights bill to the House of Representatives, gotten it through committee, and was arranging for a full vote there.  After his assassination, the bill was passed. The first proved that arms control limitations could be negotiated and signed with the Russians.  The second began to methodically and legally break the grip of the nearly hundred-year reign of Jim Crow in the south. To my knowledge, no president--before or since--had ever matched such a large domestic landmark with an equally monumental foreign policy landmark in anywhere near such a brief period.


Kennedy leaves Hawaii

Cohen begins the book with a talk President Kennedy gave in Hawaii to a conference of mayors on Sunday, June 9th.  It had been his first visit there as president. That little noticed speech was very much about the civil rights struggle.  Governor John Burns had declared June 9th President’s Day in the islands. He had hoped Kennedy would make a “policy statement of major significance” during his brief visit there.  (Cohen, p. 18) Kennedy did not disappoint the governor.

Kennedy had arrived in Hawaii on Saturday night. Ten thousand jubilant residents greeted him at the airport.  On Sunday, he attended mass, and then laid a wreath at the Pearl Harbor memorial.  On his way back, over a quarter of a million people stood on either side of his motorcade to cheer him on. Congressman Spark Matsunaga declared that never in the history of the islands “has there been such a reception for anyone, barring none.” (ibid) Not bad for what had been a last minute addition to a western tour culminating in Los Angeles. (ibid, p. 17)

That Sunday, at the Hawaiian Village Hotel, Kennedy addressed what he referred to as a growing national problem.  He asked the audience, “The question is whether you and I will do nothing, thereby inviting pressure and increasing tension, and inviting possible violence; or whether you will anticipate these problems and move to fulfill the rights of your Negro citizens in a peaceful and constructive manner.” (ibid, p. 19)

He then moved on more dramatically, “It is clear to me that the time for token moves and talk is past…”  He then said that the rights of black Americans are going to be won, “…and that it is our responsibility--yours and mine--to see that they are won in a peaceful and constructive way, and not won in the streets.” (ibid)  He then called on the mayors in attendance to begin to form biracial local committees to eliminate all segregation laws, to promote equal opportunity in hiring practices, and to also create high school dropout prevention programs.

He ended his speech with what can only be called a peroration. He said, “Justice cannot wait for too many meetings.  It cannot wait for the action of the Congress or the courts. We face a moment of moral and constitutional crisis, and men of generosity and vision must make themselves heard in every section of this country.” (ibid)  He then concluded that all men “should be equal in their chance to develop their character, their motivation, and their ability.  They should be given a fair chance to develop all the talents that they have, which is a basic assumption and presumption of this democracy of ours.”  Cohen deserves credit for pointing out this obscure but powerful and important address.  It serves as a neat prelude to his book.

From here, the author moves to the creation of the peace speech delivered the next day at American University.  Cohen credits Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins with the originating impetus for Kennedy’s decision to make the speech. Like Jim Douglass, whose JFK and the Unspeakable he does not credit—a point we shall return to later—Cohen notes the role of Cousins in creating a non-official back channel between Kennedy and Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev.  This began a month after the Missile Crisis when Cousins alerted the White House that he would be making a journey to the USSR and probably talking to high officials there, including Khrushchev.  Kennedy assigned presidential assistant Ralph Dungan to the matter. (Cohen, p. 50)  Before Cousins left for Russia in December, Dungan invited him to meet with the president. 

Kennedy knew that Cousins had been a lifelong crusader for nuclear arms reduction.  So he realized that, in the shadow of the Missile Crisis, the subject would come up when Cousins arrived in Moscow.  Kennedy advised Cousins to tell the premier that, “…I don’t think there’s any man in American politics who’s more eager than I am to put Cold War animosities behind us and get down to the hard business of building friendly relations.”  (ibid)  When Khrushchev heard this from Cousins, he said that if such was the case, then the first thing they should do is to negotiate a treaty limiting nuclear weapons testing.  They then should start work on limiting their proliferation. 

Kennedy at American University

When Cousins returned to Russia in April of 1963, he brought news that Kennedy would do all he could to get the treaty signed. The Russian premier was ready to sign on to a total test ban if it allowed a minimum amount of on site inspections. Kennedy favored that kind of ban also.  But his problem was that he knew he could not get that through the senate, where you needed a two-thirds vote to ratify a treaty. The extremists in America wanted much more inspection. (ibid, p. 51) Therefore, the two men had to settle for a partial ban.  This one banned testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater, but still allowed for testing underground. Khrushchev was disappointed in the compromise. Kennedy understood the disappointment.  He told Cousins, “He would like to prevent a nuclear war but is under severe pressure from his hard-line crowd, which interprets every move in that direction as appeasement.  I’ve got similar problems.” Kennedy then continued in this vein by saying, the lack of progress “gives strength to the hard-line boys…with the result that the hard-liners in the Soviet Union and the United States feed on one another, each using the actions of the other to justify its own position.” (p. 52)

Cousins replied that it was not just the hard-liners in the USSR. The Chinese also felt that Khrushchev’s efforts at conciliation were unrealistic.  And that once the negotiations broke down, they thought there would be a move towards closer friendship between China and the USSR. In fact, a delegation from Bejing was scheduled to visit Moscow in June. Kennedy understood this and was worried about it.  He saw the test ban as a way to derail it. (ibid)

Cousins told the president that “what was needed was a breathtaking new approach toward the Russian people, calling for an end to the Cold War and a fresh start in American–Russian relationships.”  This kind of approach would insinuate that “the old animosities could become the fuse of a holocaust.” Kennedy took all of this in, digested it and understood it.  He told the editor to write him a memo on both their meetings and his visit with the Russian premier. Which Cousins did. (ibid, p. 53)  Two weeks later, in early May, Ted Sorenson--Kennedy’s main speechwriter--called him to his office.  Sorenson told him that Kennedy was going to use some of his arguments and he wanted some more notes. The Kennedy/Cousins connection was the beginning of the American University address.

Sorenson wrote a rough draft first.  It was reviewed by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Bundy’s assistant Carl Kaysen, fellow speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, and Adrian Fisher from the Arms Control and Disarmament agency.  On June 6th, Sorenson took all the suggestions and turned out a second draft overnight.  After another go-round with the same circle he refined it again.  On June 7th, he gave that final draft to Kaysen for the necessary security clearances.  Kennedy advised Kaysen on this process.  When handed the speech, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Maxwell Taylor decided not to show it to the other service branch chiefs.

On the return plane ride back from Hawaii, Sorenson showed the speech to Kennedy.  JFK suggested some changes but, overall, he liked it.  Kennedy also showed the speech to Senator Mike Mansfield and Averill Harriman from the State Department, who he would later choose to negotiate the test ban treaty.  (ibid, pgs. 26-27)  It was ratified in the senate in late September of 1963 and took effect on October 10th.

After JFK arrived at the White House from Hawaii at a little after nine in the morning, Bobby Kennedy called his brother.  He congratulated him on his speech in Hawaii. The Attorney General then asked him when he was speaking at American University.  The president replied that it would be at 10:30 that morning.   Bobby asked if he could come to the White House after that. He needed to talk to him about the crisis at the University of Alabama.


Meridith at Ole Miss

This is another point that most of us have forgotten about.  Sandwiched between these two epochal speeches, a gripping televised drama was playing itself out. The University of Alabama was the last major institution of higher learning in the south to remain segregated. At Ole Miss, the previous year, President Kennedy had to send in federal troops when Governor Ross Barnett had resisted admitting black student James Meredith.  During that violent conflict, two people were killed, cars were burned, and federal marshals were pelted with rocks. Barnett resisted even though Meredith’s case had been ruled upon by both a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court.  When he did so, the governor was then found in contempt of court. He was given five days to comply or he would be arrested and fined. The problem for Barnett was that he had proclaimed, “No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor.” Therefore, the Kennedys and the legal system had to go into high gear to gain entry for Meredith.  And because Barnett wanted to satisfy the racist element of the electorate, he resisted until the end. Because of this, violence ensued.  RFK later came to the conclusion that if Barnett could not stop Meredith from registering, his fallback plan was to make it appear that only the Kennedys sending in thousands of federal troops made him do so.  And for Meredith’s protection, troops stayed on campus for eight months. In other words, as in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the North was occupying the South.  Afterwards, Bobby Kennedy understood that this had been Barnett’s plan from the start.  (Robert Kennedy in His Own Words, edited by Ed Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman, p. 160)

In Alabama, Governor George Wallace had taken a similar pledge. His was to stand in the schoolhouse door to stop the University of Alabama from being integrated.  The last thing the Kennedys wanted was another Ole Miss conflagration.  But as with Meredith, two young black students--Vivian Malone and James Hood--had been cleared by the courts to attend the publicly financed state university.  In addition to his public pledge, Wallace had made a political calculation after he lost the 1958 race for governor to the rightwing, Klan backed  John Patterson.  Prior to that loss, Wallace had  been--comparatively speaking--rather moderate on civil rights.  As both a state representative and circuit judge, he had done things that would not pigeonhole him as a racist, like granting probation to black prisoners.

But after he lost to Patterson he reportedly told aide Seymore Trammell, “Seymore, you know why I lost …..?  I was outniggered by John Patterson.  And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” (Dan Carter, The Politics of Rage, p. 2; this incident is also depicted in John Frankenheimer’s award winning TV film, George Wallace.)  In other words, like Barnett, Wallace was putting on what was partly a theatrical performance.  He was playing to his constituency.  And his constituency was the Democratic Party in Alabama, just as Barnett’s was the Democratic Party in Mississippi.  In other words, the Kennedys were bucking up against what was supposed to be their own political colleagues.  I wish Cohen had given us a bit of historical background on how this happened. He does not.  (Which is a shortcoming of the overall book I will elaborate on later.)

In a nutshell, it was Lincoln, a Republican, who had declared the Emancipation Proclamation. He then passed the Thirteenth Amendment.  And it was the Radical Republicans who had then passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.  Further, Andrew Johnson, a southerner, had been nearly impeached and removed from office by the Radical Republicans when he resisted their program for military occupied Reconstruction.

Therefore, when the Klan began to organize around the remnants of the Confederacy and the southern army, their natural allies were the local and regional Democrats.  To their everlasting shame, those Democrats made a decision based upon nothing but arithmetic--as if the Civil War and its hundreds of thousands of casualties had never happened.  They casually and simply added up the number of white residents in the various states and compared them with the number of black residents.  Since the former outnumbered the latter by a margin of at least two to one, it was easy to see where political success lay.  Therefore, the local Democratic authorities united with the local racist groups and put together what historians today call the Mississippi Plan. In its most extreme form, on the eve of elections, white paramilitary groups would ride on horseback, processional style, through the center of towns and villages carrying torches, with weapons in their saddles.  The message was clear:  if the newly liberated black slaves tried to vote they would do so at their own risk.  And the fact that these processions openly rode through towns certified that the local legal authorities would do nothing about enforcing federal laws, like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

This was followed by the infamous Compromise of 1877.  In that backroom deal, the presidential victory of Democrat Samuel Tilden was negated.  Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president. The Democrats again were practicing arithmetic. In this horse trade, the Republican Hayes and his predecessor President Grant now removed the last northern armies from the south. Reconstruction was now ended. When that occurred, the last Republican governments in the south collapsed. That geographic area now become a bastion of Democratic electoral strength in national elections.  It came to be called the Solid South. With these two events, things like the Black Codes now morphed into Jim Crow.  Jim Crow then became a systematic and methodical plan of complete segregation.   No American president had seriously challenged this system before Kennedy.  And since he had spoken out on the issue as a senator and a candidate, he had lost six states in the Solid South in the 1960 election—before he was even inaugurated. Most historians see this as the beginning of the great transformation of the south from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold. 

What made it all the worse was that the presidents who should have done something about this appalling situation did little or nothing.  That is, the so-called Progressive presidents (Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson), and Democratic liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.  The last two understood something should be done.  But they both made the practical decision that if they acted on the subject in any real or forceful way, the other parts of their political agenda would be torpedoed by the power of the so-called Dixiecrats in the House and especially in the Senate i.e. the southern Democrats who controlled the chairmanships of so many committees in congress. Therefore Roosevelt did as much as he could symbolically by appointing black Americans to his administration.  Truman integrated the military services.

But what is the excuse for Dwight Eisenhower?  The reason I express the question that way is because he had the sanction of the Supreme Court.  In 1954, the Warren Court passed down the Brown vs. Board decision.  This crucial case reversed the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, that had sanctified local Jim Crow laws, and therefore separate facilities were now deemed equal before the law. The Supreme Court had ratified segregation.  But the 1954 decision very clearly overturned that case and dictated that the system of segregation should be now taken apart with all due speed.  But as many commentators have stated, the Eisenhower/Nixon regime proceeded with the speed of a turtle with arthritis.  For instance, Eisenhower’s Justice Department never filed a civil rights case in Mississippi during his entire administration.  In the six years after Brown vs. Board, Eisenhower filed a grand total of ten civil rights cases based up on either equal accommodations or voting discrimination.  To say this was a snail’s pace is an insult to snails. As many commentators have pointed out, this hesitance was the beginning of Vice President Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy: the deliberate courting of the racist element in the south for political gain.  In other words, the Republicans were--not very subtly--reversing the heritage of Lincoln. (The one exception in the six year span was the 1957 crisis at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas.) Therefore, because of the political calculation of Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy had an even more uphill climb in front of him.  He had to overcome the nearly one hundred year institutional basis of segregation, which had now become ingrained in southern culture in every way: socially, politically, and psychologically. But further, he had to find a way to get around the Dixiecrat control in congress e.g. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi.

I wish Cohen had detailed some of the above in his text. It would have placed the dramatic reversal President Kennedy was about to enact in a more accurate context.


Wallace in Tuscaloosa

As authors Irving Bernstein, Harry Golden and Harris Wofford have noted, Kennedy understood that there were simply not enough votes in congress to get a civil rights bill enacted his first year. Therefore, in 1961, the White House did what Eisenhower and Nixon had not done. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy concentrated on school integration with the Brown vs. Board decision backing him. (Guthman and Shulman, pgs. 147-48)  The Kennedys sent Justice Department officials like Ramsey Clark, Burke Marshall and John Siegenthaler to local districts where they thought black families would have difficulty registering their children in public K-12 schools.  As Bernstein notes in Promises Kept, in 1961, Kennedy proceeded to do as much as possible through executive orders in order to build momentum, instead of sustaining a legislative defeat or filibuster.  In 1962, the administration did send up a modest voting rights bill.  As Bobby Kennedy later said, it went nowhere.  It was filibustered and the White House did not have anywhere near the votes to get cloture. (Guthman and Shulman, p. 149)  So the White House continued with administrative actions, like local lawsuits under Brown vs. Board and Title III of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and equal employment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With the last, the Kennedys were determined to make sure that companies doing business with the government were active in hiring minority groups.

Then came the Birmingham spectacle, with Sheriff Bull Connor facing off against Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The sight of white firemen slamming black children against buildings with fire hoses, of German Shepherds leaping and biting innocent civilians, of police officers smashing demonstrators’ skulls with billy clubs, these nightly TV images created a sensation.  As JFK told his brother and Dr. King, the bill he sent to congress should have been called Bull Connor’s Bill. (Guthman and Shulman p. 171) Washington watched and listened as people in the north were now repulsed by what a century of segregation had done to Americans in the south—even after the Civil War amendments had legally made former slaves equal to whites. Such was simply not the case; not even close. The actions of Ross Barnett in Oxford, and Bull Connor in Birmingham now formed the background for President Kennedy versus Governor Wallace in Tuscaloosa.

Cohen uses what is today a little known source for the backbone of his description of this conflict.  The late Robert Drew was a committed documentary film director who was one of the first—along with Emile de Antonio—to make cinema verite films.  That is, documentaries that did not use the device of  breaking up the action of the story with a posed and well lighted sit down interview with a subject.  Drew had previously made the film Primary in this way.  That was about the Wisconsin Democratic primary election of 1960, which featured Kennedy against Senator Hubert Humphrey.  (The only author in the JFK assassination field who has mentioned that film to any degree is Joseph McBride in his book Into the Nightmare.) Kennedy had seen the film and liked it.  He asked Drew what he wanted to do next. Drew said he wanted to make a film about his administration during a particularly stressful period of time. (Cohen, p. 78)  They eventually decided upon the racial crisis between Kennedy and Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama.  In addition to filming the Kennedy brothers and the two students, Governor Wallace agreed to allow cameras to follow him around also.  The film, naturally entitled Crisis, aired on ABC in the fall of 1963. Its candor created quite a controversy. Two of the points the film makes are that 1.) It was Kennedy who was pushing for sending a civil rights bill to congress ASAP, and 2.) It was RFK who was pushing his brother to make a national speech in primetime before he did that.  (Cohen, pgs. 82-83)  Cohen not only saw the film, he saw hours of outtakes from it.

The confrontation at the schoolhouse door was weeks in the making.  In April, Robert Kennedy had visited Wallace in Birmingham to try and ward off another violent, life threatening spectacle as with Barnett. As Bobby said later, that meeting was “unhelpful….We really didn’t get very far.” (Guthman and Shulman, p. 185)  In May, another meeting took place between the  AG and Wallace, again with no real result. Wallace was intent on being as unhelpful, and as unpredictable, as possible. Even though the university’s board of trustees wanted to let the students register, since Wallace was the titular head of the board, they could not overrule him. (ibid, p. 187)

To give an example of this, on the evening of Saturday June 8th, Wallace had sent the White House a telegram telling the president that “out of an abundance of caution” he was calling up about 500 state guardsmen.  Kennedy replied that he was “gratified by the dedication to law and order expressed in your telegram” informing him of the potential use of the National Guard at Tuscaloosa. But, the president continued, the only foreseeable threat of violence came from Wallace’s “plan to bar physically the admission of Negro students in defiance of the order of the Alabama Federal District Court, and in violation of accepted standards of public conduct.” (Cohen, p. 74)  On Tuesday June 11th, Wallace flew from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa. He had a motorcycle escort to the Hotel Stafford where he constructed his headquarters.  Wallace was going to make real his promise to stand in the schoolhouse door.  The problem for the White House was that the courts had ruled on May 21st that the students had to be enrolled for the summer session, which began on June 11th. (ibid, p. 236)

Katzenbach and Wallace

On the scene, the point man for the White House was Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach. He had arrived on Monday, and set up his office on campus.  RFK and he had decided that Malone and Hood would not accompany Katzenbach to the gate.  Since the two had already been admitted he decided to escort them to their rooms.  The problem was the actual registration, which Wallace was holding up. (Cohen, p. 85)  The White House had out manned Wallace.  President Kennedy had 3,000 soldiers on the scene if Wallace refused to yield, was arrested, and violence broke out.  They were under the command of General Creighton Abrams who was in dress clothes so as not to suggest a military commander.  Colonel Albert Lingo, Alabama’s director of public safety, raised a force of 825 law enforcement officers.

One of the valuable insights Cohen brings to the fore in his analysis of the Tuscaloosa showdown is the role of Louis Martin Jr.  Martin was a longtime reporter and editor for black newspapers like the Chicago Defender. He was recruited into Kennedy’s campaign by his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver.  He became one of the president’s main advisors on race issues. And Kennedy consulted with him in the early days of the conflict.  (Cohen, p. 226)  Kennedy was trying to decide just how wide his civil rights bill should be.  He originally wanted a bill that included integration of public accommodations, school desegregation, and voting rights. Some Republicans, like Senator Everett Dirksen, wanted to stop short of privately owned facilities like restaurants.  Previously advised by Martin, President Kennedy disagreed with this. Martin had told him the bill had to include all public accommodations or “we’re going to have one hell of a war in this country.” (ibid, p. 227) Therefore, at a private conference with Kennedy, when the Republicans objected to this aspect, Kennedy replied that all restaurants must be integrated. Martin also recommended a billion dollar program for job creation and development of job skills for inner city youth.

Katzenbach, LBJ, RFK

Cohen also deals with the role of Lyndon Johnson in all this.  Kennedy included LBJ in a meeting with Republican leaders on Monday, the tenth. And he also describes the long discussion that many authors have mentioned between Sorenson and Johnson from a week before, which was taped by the vice-president.  Johnson also recommended that the president get on national television to push the issue.  But he was not sure that this was the proper time because, like Larry O’Brien and Ken O’Donnell, Johnson thought that pushing the issue might endanger the rest of Kennedy’s program. (ibid, pgs. 227-29)  In light of that, the subtext of Cohen’s work in this regard is that it was really Robert Kennedy who was the driving force in the Wallace crisis and also the speech on race.

The Kennedys had two tactical advantages over the governor.  The first was that Frank Rose, the president of the university, was in favor of admitting the students.  (ibid, p. 239)  Therefore, he was providing the Kennedys with inside information about what Wallace was doing.  Secondly, if Wallace resisted admittance, the White House could attempt to nationalize the state national guard.  This was the step that the Kennedys realized they had to take before sending in federal troops under Abrams, which the White House always looked upon as a last resort.  (ibid, p. 249)  With over 300 journalists in attendance from all over the world, and a national TV broadcast, that is the way the conflict played out.  President Kennedy made the decision to nationalize the guard.  (ibid, p. 267)  Therefore Brigadier General Henry V. Graham asked Wallace to step aside upon orders of President Kennedy. Katzenbach and his assistant on civil rights John Doar now had the students registered.  Graham and his detachment stayed on campus, actually in the students’ dorms, for protection purposes. 

It was with the peaceful conclusion of this conflict that President Kennedy decided to go ahead with the speech that evening.  Or as Ted Sorenson later related: as Wallace left the gate, JFK turned to him and said, “I think we’d better give that speech tonight.”  The problem was that Sorenson had not prepared a speech.  What existed were some notes put together by RFK and the Justice Department.  And here, Cohen inserts something that was new for this reviewer: the figure of Richard Yates. 

Today, Yates is known as one of the most distinguished novelists of his era.  But like many other fiction writers, his fame and recognition only arrived after his death in 1992.  While alive, none of his books ever sold more than twelve thousand copies. His most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, was made into a film in 2008 by director Sam Mendes.  In 1963, Yates was freelancing as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy.  Anticipating, and in fact, pushing his brother to make a forceful nationally televised address on race, Bobby had told Yates to prepare a speech on the subject.  At the time the speech was telecast, June 11, Yates had only been working for RFK for a couple of weeks. (Cohen, p. 287)  On the evening of June 9th, Yates began working on a speech.  He completed in two days later, the day JFK went on television.  Sorenson did not hand the president a speech until less than an hour before he went before the cameras.  As Cohen notes, there is no evidence that Sorenson used the Yates draft in his work.  But there is evidence that he used some of the themes that Yates sounded.  (ibid, p. 289)

JFK Civil Rights Speech June 11, 1963

As Cohen notes, Kennedy only had a few minutes to look over the speech before going on camera. He delivered it without a teleprompter. (ibid, p. 331) And he actually extemporized the last four paragraphs. Kennedy chose to accent the events of the day, the showdown with Wallace, as the lead.  And he especially wished to highlight the facts that it was an Alabama guardsman who removed Wallace, and it was an Alabama judge who wrote the order to do so.  And they did this so that two Alabama citizens could enter the university.  Although Cohen includes a neat and incisive summary--impressing the fact that Kennedy was the first president since Lincoln to make race a moral, not a legal issue--I cannot do better than to recommend the reader watch this milestone speech for himself.  (http://abcnews.go.com/Archives/video/june-11-1963-jfk-promises-civil-rights-bill-9295675) In my opinion, among Kennedy’s several memorable speeches, it seems to me to be significantly underrated: both as a speech, and as part of the fabric of a dramatic historical revolution. It is almost impossible to imagine Eisenhower or Nixon making such a speech.  In fact, as Cohen notes, Martin Luther King was overjoyed after he heard it.  He told Walter Fauntroy, a friend he was watching it with, “Walter, can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!”  (ibid, p. 339)

But there were some who detested the speech, and the movement that had brought it on.  Cohen closes the book proper with the wife of Medgar Evers watching the speech with her children in Jackson, Mississippi. (Cohen, p. 350)  She was riveted by the things the president was saying.  Evers himself was at a mass meeting at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church.  In the very early minutes of June 12th, as he was driving up his driveway, he was shot and killed by Klansmen Byron de La Beckwith.  At his second trial for murder, which ended with a hung jury--as did the first--Ross Barnett approached Beckwith at the defense table and shook hands with him, as his wife Myrlie was testifying from the stand.  As with the Civil War and Reconstruction, the forces of segregation and Jim Crow were not going down without a fight.  De La Beckwith was not convicted for another thirty years. 

But it was this speech that really turned the conscience of America. Because it was spoken by a president who was a wealthy white man.  Kennedy used it to submit his Civil Rights Bill. Bobby Kennedy attended the funeral of Medgar Evers. After which the president invited Evers’ family to the White House.


JFK signs Equal Pay Act with American Association of University Women

I don’t wish to leave the impression that these two speeches and their immediate background are all the author covers in the book.  He also touches on other significant accomplishments during Kennedy’s brief presidency.  For example he deals with the Equal Pay Act for women; Kennedy’s very close ties to the labor movement ( as one labor lobbyist noted, “We lived in the White House” p. 113).  He also deals with Kennedy’s attempt at stressing physical fitness programs, reforming immigration, and even touches on Kennedy’s attempt to soften the exit of some industries from Indonesia, American industries that President Sukarno had expelled. (p. 310)  And the author also notes that Kennedy held a press conference almost every sixteen days.  Which is amazing in light of their frequency today.

At the beginning I said that Cohen had a fine idea for a book.  And as noted above, the volume has some good (and some new) attributes to it.  But ultimately I cannot fully endorse it like I did Robert Rakove’s Kennedy, Johnson and the Nonaligned World, or Philip Muehlenbeck’s Betting on the Africans.  There are two reasons for this.

As touched upon previously, Cohen is not really an historian. So unlike Rakove and Muehlenbeck, he does not give you the historical backdrop to either the race issue or the rapprochement with the Soviets issue, which are his two main topics. Above, I tried to barely outline the backdrop to the race issue. The latter is even more complex.  And unlike the former, the scholarship in this area—how the Cold War originated and then aggrandized itself—is still growing.  Cohen does not even try to map any of this out. To give just one example: it is hard to believe, but you will not see the name of either of the Dulles brothers—neither John Foster, nor Allen—in the entire book. Any true historian—like Rakove or Muehlenbeck, if they had been writing this book-- would have included them. In one central aspect, history is finding a through line. That is a combination of balanced background, cause and effect relationships, and, from there, searching for patterns and origins of new behavior and actions.  From all this one then finds, as Arthur Schlesinger once said, “currents”. There definitely were shifting currents in JFK’s presidency, especially on these two issues. And if Cohen had done a fuller job as historian, the reader would more fully understand the quantum leap that Kennedy was making in both areas. And why it was so difficult? Along with this failing, there is also a lack of information as to the central mystery:  Why, psychologically, did Kennedy do both of these things?  Again, the answer to that question is also in the record, but Cohen fails to excavate it for the reader.

Kennedy in Dallas

Because of these shortcomings, it leads to what I believe is the flawed conclusion he makes in his epilogue.  Cohen writes there that because of these two speeches, “For the first time in his whiplashed presidency, he came to inhabit his office.” (p. 373) This is echoed on the rear cover: a description reads, that in “Kennedy’s crowded hour, he begins to see things differently.” I could not disagree more.  On both points. The reason Kennedy’s early presidency was “whiplashed” was that he was being duped by the CIA over the Bay of Pigs issue, and he was starting a truly revolutionary program in foreign policy. And an only slightly less revolutionary one in domestic policy.  There was no way that was going to be easy, especially at the start. Because there was no way the opposition was not going to resist strongly.

On the second point, I would say that Kennedy came to inhabit his office almost immediately. In the sense that he knew what he wanted to accomplish at the start. And he set out to achieve it.  The first and, I think, foremost example is one Cohen ignores: the situation in Congo. Again, you will not see the name of Patrice Lumumba in this book. Even though he was a black man striving to free his country from imperialism. Describing that struggle—even briefly—would have highlighted and dramatized the conflict Cohen is describing domestically. I have explained in my review why Kennedy’s bill was not sent up until 1963;  it would have been filibustered effectively.  The reason the attempt at détente took place in 1963 was due to the Bay of Pigs drama; which as many have noted was due to Allen Dulles misleading President Kennedy. This is called creating a balanced historical backdrop.

Which relates to another failing of the book.  Like Thurston Clarke, Cohen is and wants to be an upstanding member of the MSM.  He has written for Time, UPI and, since he is a Canadian, the Globe and Mail, which is the USA Today of Canada.  He has been described by the New York Times as one of “Canada’s most distinguished authors.” In his book he actually praises Sally Bedell Smith’s Grace and Power as “groundbreaking”.  Which is about the last word I would use to describe it.  I would call John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam, groundbreaking. I would describe Richard Mahoney’s JFK: Ordeal in Africa as groundbreaking. I would also call Irving Bernstein’s Promises Kept and Donald Gibson’s Battling Wall Street groundbreaking tomes. No surprise, you will not see any of those books in his bibliography. But there you will see Ben Bradlee’s worthless book Conversations with Kennedy, and you will also see the late (and lying) David Heymann’s even more worthless biography of Robert Kennedy.  See, real historians like Robert Rakove and Phil Muehlenbeck are academics.  They are not part of the MSM propaganda machine. Therefore, they are not beholden to it for favors. Cohen is a part of it.  Therefore he dutifully spends a senseless amount of space on Mary Meyer. (Although, thankfully, he does not buy the Timothy Leary aspect of that story.) We are also told—Bradlee like--that Kennedy was endlessly interested in the John Profumo sex scandal in England. The author actually gives space and credibility to Mimi Alford. Even though Australian researcher Greg Parker has shown her story to be, at best, dubious. (Click here http://www.reopenkennedycase.net/reopen-blog/a-storm-in-a-mini-teapot) If you can comprehend it, as with Heymann, even stripper Tempest Storm makes an appearance in Cohen’s pages. What any of this has to do with race relations or nuclear arms control is Cohen’s secret. (Or maybe Tempest Storm’s?)

This is all part of a publishing industry subdivision I have called the “Posthumous Assassination of John F. Kennedy”.  It’s a way of demeaning Kennedy’s character and legacy and, as a byproduct, killing off interest in his assassination.  As we shall see--and as I mentioned in that essay—Bob Loomis of Random House was one of its ringleaders. (The two-part essay “The Posthumous Assassination of John F. Kennedy” is available on the Probe CD collection, and in the book The Assassinations.  Many readers considered it one of the finest essays Probe ever published.)

The problem for Cohen is his book was distributed by a subsidiary of Random House. It was Random House and the notorious Loomis who originated the work of Gerald Posner on the JFK murder. To the point of having CIA asset Loomis actually arrange interviews for Posner with the likes of Yuri Nosenko.  (Loomis was in prime position to do that.  When I called his office in 1997, his secretary said he was in Washington, since he spent about two days a week there.)  As anyone who has followed the Kennedy saga knows, Loomis has been one of the most pernicious behind the scenes operators in the field.  Some of his and his company’s clients—besides Posner—have included James Phelan, Sy Hersh, Alford, and Norman Mailer.  (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, pgs.  369-70.  See Destiny Betrayed Second Edition, p. 244, for Loomis’ handiwork on the MLK and RFK cases.) And as Sally Bedell Smith herself once admitted—as was the case with Posner—her book was not her idea.  It was pushed on her by the bigwigs at Random House—while Loomis was still there. (See SF Gate, May 23, 2004, interview with Carolyne Zinko) Therefore I have little doubt Loomis helped stage interviews for Vanity Fair’s answer to Kitty Kelley. And as we have learned about this cottage industry—with both Kelley and Heymann—some of these “interviews” did not happen. And that is why Smith’s book got such a big sendoff. Just like Loomis gave Posner a huge publicity binge. (Another Loomis client, Robin Moore, had his book, The Hunt for Bin Laden, partly fabricated by a false witness. The fabrication was done with direct authorization by Loomis.) As they say in that industry, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your book. Cohen wanted to get his ticket punched.  So he played the game. No matter how badly it marred his work.

Therefore what could have been an important and sterling volume is seriously compromised with a lot of litter.  Instead of being up there with Rakove and Muehlenbeck, it stands a couple of steps downward, with Thurston Clarke’s mixed bag of nuts.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 21:54
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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