Robert Dallek, denial, and JFK assassination story

JFK and Curtis LeMay
JFK and Air Force General Curtis LeMay. (Associate Press)


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.

Dallek writes:

“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.”

Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek

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.






via JFK vs. the Military – Robert Dallek – The Atlantic.

16 thoughts on “Robert Dallek, denial, and JFK assassination story”

  1. I completed Dallek’s biography of JFK recently and thought it was mostly a fair and factual representation of Kennedy’s life, until he got to the assassination.

    I didn’t expect Dallek to go down the road of conspiracy but I was shocked to find one complete fabrication: he wrote that Oswald purchased the Carcano after he learned JFK was coming to Dallas.

    Anyone with an Internet connection could easily fact check that Oswald purchased his gun in March 1963. It bolstered the WC’s contention that he used the rifle to take a shot at Gen. Walker the next month.

    Dallek also repeats Ford’s deliberate falsification that JFK was shot in the neck. He was not. He was shot in the high back, and Ford, a non-medically trained politico, changed the wording in the first pages of the WR that inaccurately represented the medical evidence.

    Dallek also repeats all the old canards about the public being unable to accept a ‘great’ man being killed by a nobody, and that Oswald likely killed JFK out of envy.

    Whatever. Good book overall. I just don’t like to see either side of the conspiracy debate put their thumb on the scale with inaccurate, misleading information to bolster their case. It only prolongs the mystery instead of bringing it to its final resolution, IMO.

    1. I also finished this book around the same time you did.

      I think Dallek should receive grave criticism over his complete omission of Kennedy’s dealing with Israel.

      You only need to peruse the index to see how little Israel was discussed; but Kennedy became a major obstacle to their nuclear program, threatening to withdraw U.S. support from Israel if they did not allow inspections. After his assassination no President pressured Israel that way.

      Now a good bit of this information was declassified in the 90s, Dallek as a historian is without excuse for not not covering this information.

      Personally, I think Israel had as much motivation to kill Kennedy than the Cubans who wanted to overthrow Castro or the mafia. And with Mossad, Israel had the means.

  2. A very cogent response Mr. Morley, however, I wish you would have taken Dallek to task on the unquestioning use of Mimi Beardsley Alford. I know you cautiously endorsed her on Salon when her book came out, but I think it’s a big error to so readily accept her self-insertion into large events of the Kennedy presidency. Even if there is some meager corroboration that the two had a sexual dalliance, in a world populated by people like Judith Exner, Madeline Brown, Judyth Baker, and Mary-Meyer-fantasist Peter Janney, late-coming “facts” like the “Better red than dead” quotation really need to be viewed with extreme skepticism.

  3. If the Kennedy assassination was the first step in an “engineered provocation” by the Joint Chiefs designed to provoke an invasion of Cuba, where are the expected post-11/22/63 military footprints through the Oval Office?

    Since LBJ was using the very threat of World War III to recruit the highly resistant Richard Russells and Earl Warrens to serve on the blue ribbon commission, the Pentagon surely knew that the new President was working at cross-purposes to the whole point of the assassination conspiracy.

    Where is the expected intense lobbying campaign to the effect of “while JFK’s murder was tragic, the guilty regime must be held accountable regardless of the greater consequences and that this particular moment in history is such that those consequences would never promise to be as mitigated in the future as they were now. In other words this is our best chance to secure the free world from communist domination.”?

    Where is the historical record of the Pentagon desperately trying to press its advantage and exploit the very opportunity that the assassination itself was meant to create?

    1. “Where is the historical record of the Pentagon desperately trying to press its advantage and exploit the very opportunity that the assassination itself was meant to create?”

      Look no further than NSM 273, which reversed the drawdown of the military advisors/US in Vietnam. Granted, the Joint Chiefs didn’t get the invasion of Cuba that they seemed to want (from LBJ) but they got Vietnam served up on a platter. In 1964, while the Warren Commission was busy whitewashing the truth about the assassination coup, in the Tonkin Gulf a small strike (if indeed it was even that) was cited to draw our country into a full scale, boots on the ground war. In early 1965 the first Marines would land in Da Nang, because of the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which could have been handled diplomatically the same way the USS Pueblo (1968) or the USS Liberty (1967) attacks on US Naval vessels were handled. Had those incidents been treated as the Tonkin Gulf Incident was handled, we’d have gone to war with Israel in 1967 and then North Korea in 1968.

      Johnson treated Vietnam much differently than Kennedy — he got us into a full scale war there. The Pentagon got to exploit this opportunity directly as a result of JFK’s being assassinated.

  4. Dalleck is a court historian. “Court historians” are the intellectual bodyguards of the State. They shape and defend the “official line” or interpretation on the State’s wars, its presidential regimes, or other key historical events and public policies. As a result they enjoy high esteem and recognition in the mainstream media and academia. As defenders of the status quo they frequently attack and label their critics as “conspiracy theorists,” “revisionists,” “isolationists,” “appeasers,” “anti-intellectuals,” or other boogie men, rather than engage in civil discourse or discussion.

    As economist and historian Murray N. Rothbard noted:

    “All States are governed by a ruling class that is a minority of the population, and which subsists as a parasitic and exploitative burden upon the rest of society. Since its rule is exploitative and parasitic, the State must purchase the alliance of a group of “Court Intellectuals,” whose task is to bamboozle the public into accepting and celebrating the rule of its particular State. The Court Intellectuals have their work cut out for them. In exchange for their continuing work of apologetics and bamboozlement, the Court Intellectuals win their place as junior partners in the power, prestige, and loot extracted by the State apparatus from the deluded public. The noble task of Revisionism is to de-bamboozle: to penetrate the fog of lies and deception of the State and its Court Intellectuals, and to present to the public the true history of the motivation, the nature, and the consequences of State activity. By working past the fog of State deception to penetrate to the truth, to the reality behind the false appearances, the Revisionist works to delegitimize, to desanctify, the State in the eyes of the previously deceived public.”

  5. Let’s face it, Kennedy’s most noted historic accomplishment was getting killed. Why would I bother to read anything from Dallek when he pussy-foots around the matter of the assassination. I’ll take a book from somebody Like Roger Stone who actually knows something and isn’t afraid to publish it. The Stone book “The Man Who Killed Kennedy – The Case Against LBJ” hasn’t even come out yet but it’s hit number one on Amazon. Cool!

    1. I also look forward to what Roger Stone has to say but his book isn’t even close to number one, currently ranked around 9,000.

    2. I think Kennedy’s biggest accomplishment as president was standing up to his Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That single stance that he took undoubtedly saved millions of lives from certain nuclear holocaust, in the USA, in the USSR and satellites, and in Cuba. His second greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, was defusing military tensions around the world, from Berlin to Southeast Asia, during his presidency. I think he gave his own life in this valiant effort to make the world a safer place.

      1. Had JFK lived and been re-elected he might have left a great legacy including civil rights legislation that LBJ wound up getting credit for. Plus, and we only know this through hindsight, he wouldn’t have gotten us stuck in Vietnam and the history of the country turned on that.

  6. M.J. Harrington

    As I recall JFK was worried about the military and he went out of his way to encourage John Frankenheimer to make a film of “Seven Days in May”, a novel about an attempted military coup in the United States. He gave White House facilities to Frankenheimer ,although the Pentagon refused to co-operate. I have often thought that the title of the novel/movie was meant to point the finger at LeMay. In the story the chief plotter is the air force chief of staff played by Burt Lancaster with chilling force.
    Frankenheimer had also made a disturbing film called “The Manchurian Candidate” about an American soldier brainwashed by the Chinese into becoming a political assassin who could be activated by a code phrase. JFK was evidently impressed by the movie, which starred Frank Sinatra, and made him think of Frankenheimer when he read his advanced copy of “Seven Days in May.”

  7. Very well-written. The JFK assassination is like a figure-ground illusion, once one sees it a certain way it is virtually impossible to switch perspectives even when the pattern of evidence warrants it.

  8. I have a copy of Dallek’s book, “JFK: An Unfinished Life” and have read it. I also own the Douglas book, and have read that one. The Douglas book seems to pick up where Dallek’s fears to tread, and follow the common sense threads of what we now know about Kennedy, about his relationship with the military, and about the assassination. Perhaps the idea that the military and it’s intelligence partners could do something like remove a president is something that the G.I. generation, brought up on trust of the government, can’t fathom. After all, they sacrificed so much for this country during WW2. The baby boomer generation is on the cusp. They grew up believing at first in the USA never losing a war (if you leave out 1812 or the Confederate States), and then got hit with the JFK assassination, Vietnam, the “credibility gap,” Watergate, the oil shocks and then the flop of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, which ended in a hostage crisis and a challenge by JFK’s younger brother which split the Democratic Party. Reagan came in on the heels of Prop 13 and preached that government was the problem, not the solution. Now we have government run by shutdown hostage taking. It’s a far cry from the days when government seemed to work and was an honorable profession. People born after the boomers perhaps are more suited to see the JFK assassination not as a lone nut event but as a horrible scheme with corrupt roots, akin to Watergate or akin to what Robert Caro, who like Dallek, found lots of good evidence that LBJ came to power under very corrupt means, but wouldn’t speculate about the JFK assassination regarding LBJ, even though the pattern of Johnson’s activities prior to 1963 show a person willing to lie, stuff ballot boxes, even murder (Mac Wallace) to gain access to public office.

    I predict that on this 50th anniversary most of the media will still present the Lone Gunman story to the public. But in another 25 years or so, and certainly beyond that time, all bets are off for mainstream support of the Warren Commission version of history. Younger people I believe will be more open-minded, more skeptical, of official government claims and more willing to let go of old beliefs that the G.I. generation and boomers grew up on. This is not to say that everyone in a particular generation thinks the same way, just aggregate numbers of them seem to. Those aggregates will change as the older people die off. JFK will be seen as dying from a conspiracy by most future historians.

    1. Keith William MacHendry

      Well, since probably 90%+ of Americans haven’t read the Warren Commission Report but, 80% American’s reject it’s findings, according to polls etc, I am not sure what you are actually claiming. Most US citizens think there was a conspiracy & therefore, do question the mainstream media or the so called official line. Perhaps if US citizens really did want to open the matter up into the public eye again people campaigned for any information concerning the case to be made public then the they may get answers.
      I am not an American however, I am satisfied that Lee Oswald shot JKF & acted alone. Perhaps there was a conspiracy to take out Kennedy, who really knows for sure? My belief is that Oswald was an opportunist & took it, he was not patsy but, if there was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy, they big shots planning to take him out, got it done for nothing. Oswald was no patsy & there is no way any, mob, CIA, industrial complex or Cubans plus whoever else, would have used such unstable & unreliable person as a patsy to be part of such a massive undertaking as to kill your President.
      Perhaps some of us Scots would have gladly tried to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back in eighties but, ultimately didn’t risk it. Irish Republicans took a different view & tried it. Most of these actions aren’t as complicated as people try yo make out & the death of JFK, long winded theories aside is no different.

  9. Minutes of secret Joint Chiefs meetings in the fall of 1963 show that Curtis LeMay in fact ran the meetings, even though he was not Chairman. CIA was required to present all ideas for Cuba operations to the Joint Chiefs for decision. LeMay told JFK to his face that he believed JFK’s settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis was “worse than Munich”. Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza stated he was protesting Joseph Kennedy’s support of the Munich agreement.

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