In an intriguing new piece for the Atlantic, “JFK v. the Military,” historian Robert Dallek picks up on one of the most important JFK revelations to emerge since Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”
But Dallek also avoids its implications. And therein lies a tale of how historians — and the general public — think about JFK’s assassination 50 years later.
In the Atlantic piece, Dallek skillfully sketches mutual contempt that governed the relationship between the liberal president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Kennedy’s time in office. A popular historian from UCLA, Dallek captures the swaggering style of JCS chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and Air Force General Curtis LeMay. To describe these men as “war-mongers” is not unfairly abusive but clinically objective.
Dallek’s revelation concerns JFK’s policy toward Cuba.The generals loathed Kennedy for refusing to back the CIA-sponsored rebel invasion at the Bay of Pigs that failed miserably in April 1961. JFK resented the military brass for not anticipating the plan’s failure and for proposing war, even nuclear war, as the solution to every foreign policy problem.
But Kennedy was constrained. From a domestic political viewpoint, he couldn’t ignore the pressure from Republicans and the right-wing to end Communist control of Cuba. Geopolitically, he wasn’t ready to tolerate Castro’s government and its ambition to spread socialist revolution in Latin America.
So Kennedy was willing to entertain suggestions for ending Castro’s rule as long as the Cuban regime demonstrably provoked a U.S. military response or as long as Washington’s role could remain concealed.
The Pentagon’s solution? Operation Northwoods, an ominous scheme whose existence was hidden from JFK assassination investigators in the 1960s and 1970s. The independent civilian panel, the Assassination Records Review board, discovered and declassified the Northwoods plans in 1997.
“To meet Kennedy’s criteria, the Joint Chiefs endorsed a madcap plan called Operation Northwoods. It proposed carrying out terrorist acts against Cuban exiles in Miami and blaming them on Castro, including physically attacking the exiles and possibly destroying a boat loaded with Cubans escaping their homeland. The plan also contemplated terrorist strikes elsewhere in Florida, in hopes of boosting support domestically and around the world for a U.S. invasion. Kennedy said no.”
Dallek says no more about Operation Northwoods in the piece, which is excerpted from his new book about JFK. He concludes that Kennedy’s resistance to the Pentagon was wise and admirable, a conclusion for which he has robust proof.
He doesn’t deal with JFK’s assassination in the Atlantic article. However, Dallek has elsewhere denied any connection between JFK’s struggles with the Pentagon and his violent removal from power on November 22, 1963.
Given the Northwoods revelations, his denial strikes me as, well, a form of denial.
The available evidence certainly doesn’t prove a connection, but it doesn’t preclude it either. To the contrary, Dallek presents JFK’s generals as men who vigorously advocated preemptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union, which would have killed tens of millions of people. With pungent quotations, he evokes the contempt they had for JFK which bordered on murderous, at least rhetorically. (In this oral history, LeMay referred to the people around President Kennedy as “cockroaches” who deserved crushing; See p. 30.)
The idea that such patriots might have resorted to extra-constitutional violence to protect the United States from the perceived dangers of JFK’s liberal policies is not far-fetched. To the contrary, it is plausible, if not commonsensical.
Yet Dallek won’t contemplate the possibility. He resists considering the notion that a faction in the U.S. national security agencies, might have, a la Operation Northwoods, orchestrated a spectacular crime — the assassination of a president- — in such a way that the blame would fall on Castro and his supporters.
Dallek’s choice of adjectives — “madcap” — is a tip-off. The word captures the foolishness of the Northwoods plans but it also carries the unwarranted implication that they were not serious. In fact, the Northwoods planners were experienced and capable. Their idea for staging a deceptive policy conspiracy to blame Cuba for a political crime perpetrated by U.S. intelligence operatives was not a speculative venture nor the invention of a left-wing Hollywood screenwriter. It was settled Pentagon policy.
Catholic theologian James Douglass was more realistic when he wrote in JFK and the Unspeakable, that the Northwoods documents exposed the mentality of Kennedy’s military advisers who “pursued devious and murderous conspiracies to advance their ambition of launching a preemptive war against Cuba that would remove Castro from power.”
Dallek’s presentation, at least in the Atlantic article, is also incomplete. He reports that JFK rejected the Northwoods plans in March 1962 but does not mention that a year later, in May 1963, the Joint Chiefs formally recommended that an “engineered provocation” still offered the best hope for overthrowing Castro. The Northwoods documents are a catalogue of engineered provocations. Thus devious and murderous conspiracies to advance remove Castro from power were the preferred Pentagon approach to Cuba on November 21, 1963.
And another new JFK revelation, not mentioned by Dallek, shows the events that unfolded in Dallas on November 22, 1963, bore some schematic resemblance to the Northwoods plans.
The Northwoods planners had proposed U.S. intelligences assets be used to publicize the “evidence” of Cuban involvement in a high-profile attack on a U.S. target, the better to rally U.S. public opinion in support of an invasion.
As I first reported in 2001, within hours of JFK’s assassination, the CIA’s assets in the Cuban Student Directorate — funded by a secret program codenamed AMSPELL and run by undercover CIA officer George Joannides — publicized evidence of Oswald’s pro-Castro ways in an unsuccessful effort to generate support for a U.S. invasion of the island.
If JFK’s assassination was intended to provoke a U.S. invasion of Cuba, it failed. But it wasn’t for lack of trying among some CIA officers who loathed Kennedy and his policies. Given the continuing official secrecy surrounding the CIA men involved in the JFK story, it seems premature to discount the possibility they orchestrated an “engineered provocation.”
We are left with a cloud of suspicion of the sort that makes professional historians and journalists uncomfortable. Our job is to make sense of the factual record and exclude uncertainty. Yet, maddeningly, the facts of the JFK story, even 50 years later, don’t allow that.
One option is avoid the subject. Dallek has chosen not to delve into the JFK’s murder in the past. In his 2006 biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life, he did no original research into JFK’s assassination. Unusually for an academic historian, Dallek relied on a book by a journalist, (Gerald Posner’s 1992 best-seller, Case Closed) to buttress his view that JFK was killed by one man alone for reasons known only to himself. Posner’s book was not peer reviewed by other historians, and it was written in 1992, five years before the Northwoods documents became public.
You might think that the Northwoods revelations would prompt some second thoughts, or at least reconsideration, of the conspiracy question. But the Atlantic piece suggests that Dallek, like most tenured historians and elite journalists, doesn’t want to talk about it. He does not merely reject the idea that Kennedy was killed by his enemies. He doesn’t discuss it. Even the well-documented revelations of deadly scheming by JFK’s foes cannot get him to reconsider.
What accounts for such close-mindedness?
Dallek would probably say there is no evidence to connect the Northwoods schemes to the events in Dallas. But the fact that the Northwoods documents were hidden from JFK investigators and the public for 35 years and were then uncovered by an independent civilian review panel looking for JFK assassination records is surely worth mentioning. Maybe Dallek will elaborate in his book.
Others see a media conspiracy to protect the national security state. I think Dallek’s all-too-typical lack of curiosity is more the product of a liberal culture where the efficacy and integrity of the federal government is idealized and being perceived as a “JFK conspiracy theorist” imposes serious professional costs.
Outside of the the ivory tower and the newsrooms, where believing JFK was killed by his enemies does not have negative material consequences, I find people are much more open-minded about the causes of JFK’s assassination– and often just as well informed.
One definition of denial is “a state of mind marked by a refusal or an inability to recognize and deal with a serious personal problem.” The reality of the JFK assassination story isn’t Dallek’s personal problem. But it is a serious national political problem that isn’t going away, even if professional historians shy from talking about it. Indeed we can already see that the JFK questions are returning in a media tsunami that will crest on November 22, 2013.
Dallek’s illuminating account of JFK’s struggles with the national security barons of his own government also illuminates the state of mind called denial.