Jim DiEugenio note: I have said many times that the cover up about who Kennedy was, is worse than the one over the circumstances of his death. Latest example: Michael Kazin of Georgetown published a piece of intellectual thuggery in the NY Review of Books a couple of weeks ago. Masquerading as a review of a book on JFK’s early years, it was really no such thing. It was an attack on his presidency. What made it worse is that it was false on the facts, and it left so much out as to be solipsistic. Here is my reply to his pernicious screed.
Jim DiEugenio redresses the historical and academic dishonesty of Michael Kazin’s thinly veiled screed against President John F. Kennedy under the guise of a review of a biography that only covers his life through 1956 by meticulously articulating the facts of Kennedy’s domestic and foreign policy positions.
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown.The New York Review of Booksis a leftwing, tabloid formatted political, cultural, and intellectual review. It specializes in contemporary political events, books, and the arts. In their May 27thissue, this respected publication allowed Mr. Kazin to do something that should have been prevented. Kazin was supposed to be reviewing part one of Fredrik Logevall’s, two volume biography of John F. Kennedy,JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century.
What’s disturbing about Kazin’s review is this: it is not a review. After reviewing books for approximately two decades—and studying literary criticism for longer than that—I understand what the process entails. The most important thing about critiquing a book is an analysis of the text of the book. What that means is the critic describes what the author has written and analyzes both what is there and also what the author left out that might have altered his argument. When that process is completed, the critic evaluates the book in relation to other works in the field as a measure of value. Of course, there are many, many biographies of John F. Kennedy that Kazin could have used as a measuring rod.
What is striking about Kazin’s review is that it is really a polemic against John Kennedy. Kazin used Logevall’s book as a springboard to trash the man and his career. One can easily detect this by noting how much of Kazin’s “review” deals with matters outside the time frame of the book, which only goes up to 1956. In fact, one can see what the “reviewer” is up to in his first sentence:
Why, nearly six decades after his murder, do Americans still care so much about and, for the most part, continue to think so highly of John Fitzgerald Kennedy?
If one has to ask that question, then obviously one is about to assault those people who do so. Kazin follows that up by pulling a page out of the Larry Sabato/Robert Dallek playbook. He now writes that Kennedy achieved little of lasting significance in his presidency.
Again, please note: this is a review of a book that only extends itself to 1956. But Kazin is now talking about something Logevallhas not gotten to yet. Beyond that, he is making ajudgmentabout the years that the book does not address! Clearly, Kazin has an uncontrollable agenda about the Kennedy years in the White House that his editors allowed him to spew. He more or less writes that Kennedy achieved nothing of value either domestically or in foreign policy. I would think that signing two executive orders for affirmative action in his first year would count as something of value. (Irving Bernstein,Promises Kept, p. 56) After all, no previous president had done that. In foreign policy, I would think that constructing the Alliance for Progress and refusing to recognize the military overthrow of the democratically elected Juan Bosch in Dominican Republic would be something to address.
But if Kazin did note just those two things about Kennedy’s foreign policy, then he would create a polemical problem for himself, because then the reader would ask: What happened to those two programs? The answer would be that Lyndon Johnson pretty much neutralized both of them. (Clickherefor details)
In the last instance, concerning Dominican Republic, LBJ did more than that. In 1965, he launched an invasion to preserve the military junta and prevent Bosch from regaining power,which was a clear reversal of what Kennedy’s policy was. (Donald Gibson,Battling Wall Street, pp. 78–79) Pretty clever guy that Kazin.
As one can see from the above linked article, Bobby Kennedy was very upset about what Johnson had done to the Alliance for Progress. As was RFK, Senator William Fulbright was beside himself about the Dominican Republic invasion. Fulbright’s staff had done some research by consulting sources on the ground. They concluded that Johnson had lied about the true state of affairs, especially concerning alleged atrocities by Bosch’s forces. (Joseph Goulden,Truth is the First Casualty, p. 166)
That Johnson deception in the Caribbean paralleled another, even larger one: the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In fact, it was Fulbright’s outrage over LBJ’s subterfuge in the Dominican Republic that provoked him into reviewing what Johnson had done to get America into Vietnam. One of Fulbright’s staffers, Carl Marcy, had reviewed both instances and he now believed Johnson had lied about each. He wrote a memo to Fulbright about it. He concluded that what Johnson had done in the last 24 months helped explain what happened to:
…turn the liberal supporters of President Kennedy into opponents of the policies of President Johnson, and the rightwing opponents of Eisenhower and Kennedy into avid supporters of the present administration. (ibid)
Feeling that he had been suckered, in 1966 Fulbright began his famous televised hearings on the Vietnam War. This is what began to split the Democratic Party asunder and aided the election of Richard Nixon. This is why it was smart for Kazin not to go there.
The above points out just how wildly askew Kazin is in foreign policy. But as far as domestic policy goes, in addition to the two affirmative action laws, Kennedy granted federal employees the right to form unions and, by 1967, there were 1.2 million who had joined. That idea then spread to state and local government. In 1962, Kennedy signed the Manpower Development and Training Act aimed to alleviate African-American unemployment. In April of that year, Kennedy went on national television to begin what economist John Blair later termed “the most dramatic confrontation in history between a president and a corporate management.” (Gibson, p. 9) This was Kennedy’s battle against the steel companies who had reneged on an agreement he had worked out with them between management and labor. Kennedy prevailed after his brother, the attorney general, began legal proceedings against the steel cartel. If Kazin can indicate to me a recent president who has made such an address against another corporation or group of aligned businesses, I would like to hear it.
In 1962, Kennedy tried to pass a Medicare bill. It was defeated by a coalition of conservative southern senators and the AMA. At the time of his death, Kennedy was planning to revive the bill through Congressman Wilbur Mills. (Bernstein, pp. 246–59) But also, on June 13, 1963, Kennedy made a speech to the National Council of Senior Citizens. This was part of those remarks:
There isn’t a country in Western Europe that didn’t do what we are doing 50 years ago or 40 years ago, not a single country that is not way ahead of this rich productive, progressive country of ours. We are not suggesting something radical and new or violent. We are not suggesting that the government come between the doctors and his patient. We are suggesting what every other major, developed, intelligent country did for its people a generation ago. I think it’s time the United States caught up.
In fact, one can argue that Kennedy proposed universal healthcare way before Barack Obama did. All one has to do is just look at this speech:
How did Professor Kazin miss that one? It didn’t take deep research. After all, it’s on YouTube. Please note: in this speech Kennedy talks about how progressive goals for the public can be attained through government leadership and action.
By 1960, because of his vote to table the measure, it was established that Richard Nixon was not going to advocate for federal aid to education. President Kennedy favored such aid and appointed a task force to study the issue. (Bernstein, p. 224) By October of 1963, Congress had passed the first federal aid to education bill since 1945. It would be signed into law by President Johnson.
That last sentence is also apropos of the War on Poverty. It was not Lyndon Johnson who originated the War on Poverty, it was John Kennedy. Kennedy was influenced by the publication of Michael Harrington’s bookThe Other America. This provoked Kennedy to begin a series of talks with his economic advisor Walter Heller concerning the subject of how best to attack poverty. (Thurston Clarke,JFK’s Last Hundred Days, pp. 242–43) Kennedy decided he would make this an election issue and he would visit several blighted areas to bring it to national attention.
Bobby Kennedy set his close friend David Hackett to actually study the problem of geographical areas of poverty and how it caused juvenile delinquency. (Edward Schmitt,President of the Other America, p. 68) In fact, JFK had allotted millions for demonstration projects to study possible cures for the problem. Hackett was also allowed a staff of 12 to do investigations and research for him. (Allen Matusow,The Unraveling of America, pp. 111–12) At his final meeting with his cabinet, Kennedy mentioned the word “poverty” six times. Jackie Kennedy took the notes of that meeting to Bobby Kennedy after her husband’s death. The attorney general had them framed and placed on his wall. (Schmitt, pp. 92, 96)
So, between Heller and Hackett, and his plans around the 1964 election, the president seemed off to a good start. It took very little time for Johnson to place his own stamp on the program. Over RFK’s protests, Johnson removed Hackett from his position. (Matusow, p. 123) Heller resigned in 1964 in a dispute over the Vietnam War. LBJ then did something really odd. He appointed Sargent Shriver to run the War on Poverty. As Harris Wofford notes, everyone was puzzled by the decision to retire Hackett and replace him with Shriver, for the simple reason that Shriver already had a job in the administration: running the Peace Corps. (Wofford,Of Kennedys and Kings, p. 286) Consequently, the management of the program suffered. By 1968, Shriver had gone to Paris to serve as ambassador and LBJ had more or less abandoned the program. (Matusow, p. 270)
This relates to the whole shopworn mythology that Kazin uses on the race issue. If anything shows his almost monomaniacal obsession, it’s this. Recall, Logevall’s book goes up to 1956. Kazin says that young JFK avoided the race issue for purposes of politics. Then how does one explain that in 1956 Kennedy made these remarks in New York:
The Democratic party must not weasel on the issue…President Truman was returned to the White House in 1948 despite a firm stand on civil rights that led to a third party in the South. We might alienate Southern support, but the Supreme Court decision is the law of the land.
Again, it takes no deep research to find this speech, because it was printed on page 1 of theNew York Timesof February 8, 1956. Kennedy did the same thing the next year in, of all places, Jackson, Mississippi. He said the Brown v. Board decision must be upheld. (Harry Golden,Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 95) How could doing such a thing gain him political advantage in that state? As author Harry Golden notes, at this point Kennedy began to lose support in the south and to receive angry letters over his advocacy for the Brown decision.
It was obvious what Senator Kennedy was pointing at: President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon werenotsupporting Brown vs. Board. In fact, as many historians have noted, Eisenhower had advised Earl Warren to vote against the case. (The Atlantic, “Commander vs Chief”, 3/19/18) The other civil rights issue that Kazin brings up is even fruitier. His complaint is that Kennedy did not try and pass his own civil rights bill in the Senate. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson became the senate Democratic leader in 1953. LBJ became the Majority Leader in 1954. As most knowledgeable people know, Johnson voted against every civil rights bill ever proposed in Congress from the time he was first voted into the House in 1937. Was the junior senator from Massachusetts going to override the powerful Majority Leader from his own party? It was Johnson and Eisenhower who were responsible for fashioning a civil rights bill. And they didn’t.
After Eisenhower had been humiliated by Republican governor Orval Faubus during the Little Rock Crisis at Central High in 1957, he tried to save face. He and Nixon sent up a draft for a Civil Rights Commission to investigate abuses. The concept behind it was to split the Democratic Party: Norther liberals vs Southern conservatives. Johnson cooperated by watering down the bill even more to prevent the schism. Why did LBJ cooperate? Because he was thinking of running for the presidency and he saw what being against the issue had done to his mentor Richard Russell’s national ambitions. Senator Kennedy did not like the bill; he thought it was too weak. Johnson had to personally lobby JFK to get him to sign on. (Rowland Evans and Robert Novak,Lyndon Johnson: The Exercise of Power, pp. 122–25; 136–7) In a letter to a constituent, Kennedy wrote that he regretted doing so and hoped to be able to get a real bill one day with real teeth.
From the day he entered the White House, Kennedy was looking to write such a bill. Advised by Wofford that such legislation would not pass in the first or second year, he did what he could through executive actions and help from the judiciary. He then submitted a bill in February of 1963. As Clay Risen shows in his bookThe Bill of the Century, it was not Johnson who managed to get it through. This was and is a myth. JFK began with a tremendous lobbying effort himself. After he was assassinated, it was Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Republican senator Thomas Kuchel who were the major forces to finally overcome the southern filibuster. Also, as most knowledgeable people know, it was not Johnson who managed to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was owed to Martin Luther King’s galvanizing demonstration in Selma, Alabama. Johnson could not get an extension of Kennedy’s housing act through either. It was the occasion of King’s assassination that allowed it to pass.
Kazin writes something that I had to read twice to believe. He says that in his congressional races, from 1946–58, Kennedy never said or did “anything that might annoy his largely Catholic, increasingly conservative white base In Massachusetts.” I just noted his 1956 speech about civil rights in New York. But just as important, as readers of this web site know, from his visit to Saigon in 1951 and onward, Kennedy spoke out strongly against the establishment views of both Democrats and Republicans on the Cold War, especially as it was fought in the Third World. Kennedy assailed both the policies of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles as being out of touch and counter-productive in the struggles of former colonies to become free of imperialist influence. He noted this in 1956 during the presidential campaign:
…the Afro-Asian revolution of nationalism, the revolt against colonialism, the determination of people to control their national destinies…In my opinion the tragic failure of both Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II to comprehend the nature of this revolution, and its potentialities for good and evil, has reaped a bitter harvest today—and it is by rights and by necessity a major foreign policy campaign issue that has nothing to do with anti-Communism. (Richard Mahoney,JFK: Ordeal in Africa, p. 18)
Kennedy’s five year campaign to find an alternative Cold War foreign policy culminated with his famous Algeria speech the next year. There, he assailed both parties for not seeing that support of the French colonial regime would ultimately result in the same conclusion that occurred three years previous at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina. Kennedy’s speech was such a harsh attack on the administration that it was widely commented on in newspapers and journals. The vast majority of editorials, scores of them, decried the speech in no uncertain terms, as did Eisenhower, Foster Dulles, Nixon, and Acheson. But it made him a hero to the peoples of the Third World, especially in Africa. (Mahoney, pp. 20–24) This completely undermines another comment by Kazin: that Kennedy had “to surrender to the exigencies of cold war politics and the ideological make up of his party as he rose to the top of it.” As John Shaw wrote in his study of Kennedy’s senate years, JFK’s challenge to Foster Dulles allowed him to become a leader in foreign policy for his party and “to outline his own vision for America’s role in the world,” which Kennedy then enacted once he was in the White House. (JFK in the Senate, p.110) These were almost systematically reversed by Johnson. (Clickherefor details)
Toward the end of his article, Kazin goes off the rails. He says there is no memorial statue of JFK in Washington. Well Mike, there is none of Truman or FDR either. He says there is no holiday for JFK. Again, there is none for Franklin Roosevelt either. And they have recently combined the Lincoln and Washington holidays into a single President’s Day. He also says that President Joseph Biden made no mention of the Kennedys in his campaign or during his brief presidency. Biden did make reference to RFK as his hero in law school, more than once. (See for example NBC news story of August 23, 2019, on a speech Biden gave in New Hampshire.) And Biden has RFK’s bust in the Oval Office and he transported a wall painting of President Kennedy from Boston to place in his study.
If Kazin did not know any of the above, then it must be pretty easy to get tenure at Georgetown. If he did and ignored it all, then his editors should have never let this travesty pass. It does a disservice to the readers and it should be corrected. In a fundamental and pernicious way, it misinforms the public.
JFK addressed the definition of a liberal and why he was one in a 1960 campaign speech. This speech is a good source to reference in any response to Mr. Kazin. (Clickherefor details)
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) andThe JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today(2018), co-author ofThe Assassinations, and co-editedProbe Magazine(1993-2000). See“About Us” for a fuller bio.