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Johnny, We Hardly Even Knew You

09.15.1998 | BOOKS

The Dark Side of Camelot
by Seymour Hersh
Little Brown & Company, 1997

For those too young to remember the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the name tends to evoke an awkward admixture of myth and reality. Born into a culture of memory still largely dominated by Boomer nostalgia yet trained in the deep cynicism of the present age, we are forced to situate a modern myth within a more general suspicion that the truth is never so simple. And while this suspicion has been occasionally encouraged by sporadic (usually low-key) reports about JFKs womanizing and possible links to the mob, the Camelot imagery has always maintained a dominant potency in the cocktail of popular and scholarly imagination. What results from this tension is a sort of qualified mythology. Yes, he had an affair with Monroe, but his glamorous and wholesome family life was fundamentally sound. Yes, he got us into Vietnam, but he was going to pull out after reelection. And so on.

Such rose-tinted hindsight is no longer possible with the November publication of Seymour Hersh's exhaustively researched and brilliantly executed 450-page revisionist analysis The Dark Side of Camelot. Using recently declassified documents, death bed interviews, and unpublished memoirs, Hersh effectively and with one stroke demolishes the Camelot imagery so carefully constructed by the writings of devoted former Kennedy advisors, a friendly press, and the lap dogs of Establishment history. The distortions and lies upon which the Kennedy mythology has always rested are revealed for what they are, and by the time Hersh is done little remains other than his tanned good looks and the electric public personae that led Norman Mailer to pen the cryptic tag "existential hero".

Liberal backlash against the book is the subject of a separate article, but warrants mentioning here. Everyone from Schlesinger to Steven "I'm proud to be an American goddammit" Ambrose to Gary Wills railed against this exercise in unmasking as bad history and even worse reporting. I think they just hold a grudge against ol' Sy for forcing My Lai on the table and exposing the ugly truth about Israels nuclear program. Two very unliberal things to talk about. In any case, their collective nitpicking about the book says more about them and our sick political culture than it does about Hersh. They all concentrate on the inconsistencies of the sexual minutia and ignore the more serious allegations. Their trash reviews were all diversionary.

The juicy stuff first. Hersh reports Kennedy as telling a family friend that he gets a migraine unless he has a strange piece of ass at least once a day. And according to the testimony of former Kennedy secret service agents, he didnt get too many migraines. The new record reveals not only lots of phone sex from a secret line in the Oval Office, but wild parties in the White House pool and marathon three-ways with starlets, prostitutes and European socialites on an almost nightly basis. (Needless to say, Jackie almost never traveled with her husband.) Hersh reports that Kennedy's voracious sexual appetite--which led to chronic venereal disease flare-ups--was in part a result of his thrice daily injections of an amphetamine cocktail prescribed by the notorious Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson. (Jacobson, who was stripped of his license to practice medicine in 1975, almost always traveled with the president.)

Kennedy's extramarital sex had profound policy implications, however, and should not be viewed simply in terms of individual private behavior. As stories of Kennedy's wild lifestyle leaked into the beltway, it became a source of leverage for those who wanted something from the President. One of those interests was the General Dynamics Corporation, who at the beginning of Kennedy's term had little chance of winning a large contract to build a new generation of fighter jets planned by the Pentagon. In the summer of 1962 the company hired an FBI agent to acquire evidence on one of Kennedy's more careless affairs--an easy enough task--and soon Boeing had amazingly lost the bid for the 1,700 jets to its less qualified competitor. The ultimately discontinued batch of F-111s would go down as one of the biggest pork barrels in history: as was predicted by most observers at the time the contract was awarded, the General Dynamics jets ended up being unflyable and the cost to the public by 1970 was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another result of Kennedy's flagrant womanizing was J. Edgar Hoovers reign of terror during the 1960s. Although Kennedy found Hoover to be an unsavory character and was disturbed by the domestic surveillance practices of the FBI, he was never able to contemplate curbing his power due to the information Hoover held over him. Hoover relayed the situation to Joe Kennedy Sr. early on during the 1960 election and arranged a tit for tat that assured his reappointment. The reappointment of Hoover was, in fact, Kennedy's first official act as President. The result was another administration beholden to a corrupt and illegal arm of Federal power.

But infidelity was far from the only thing Hoover (and others) held against Kennedy in his quest to become president. In a chapter entitled The Stolen Election, Hersh recounts how Joe Kennedy used longstanding mob connections going back to his bootlegging days to buy votes in West Virginia and Illinois--two states crucial to his sons razor thin victory. Sometimes using Frank Sinatra as a go-between, the Kennedys passed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on to local politicians, corrupt teamsters and various figures in the Chicago crime syndicate to get the vote out. An understanding was also worked out at a summit meeting between Joe Kennedy and his personal friend Sam Giancana that a Kennedy victory would take the heat off organized crime.

Nor did Kennedy's connections to the mob end with his election. Humiliated by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy spent the rest of his life devoted to eliminating Castro, employing mob figures who lost their Havana operations after the revolution to murder Castro and subvert the socialist government. But while the efforts made under Operation Mongoose were unsuccessful, it was not for lack of trying. Hersh reports that new and ever more far fetched plans to kill Castro were a central preoccupation of the CIA under Kennedy. According to White House files, the Kennedy administration also actively sought and succeeded in the assassination of at least three other foreign leaders: Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Malcolm X had no idea how accurate he was when he proclaimed after Kennedy's death at an assassins hand that chickens come home to roost.

Another blow dealt to the Kennedy myth involves the Cuban missile crisis, generally regarded as JFKs shining moment of courage and fortitude. Not only was Kennedy consciously willing to allow for up to a 1/3 to 1/2 chance of nuclear war, but the entire conflict was the result of the administrations repeated anti-Castro provocations in violation of international law. And in contrast to the the standard depiction of a stoic president courageously facing down the Soviets, the resolution of the crisis was in fact brought about via a last-minute secret deal involving the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Kennedy did not, in his own words, cut [Kruschevs] balls off. Far from it; he courted nuclear holocaust with his personal vendetta against Castro, rejected early diplomacy, and backed down only at the last moment to claim victory while lying through his teeth.

Hersh's chapter on Vietnam is comparatively thin and perhaps not as damning as it should be. For while he does acknowledge that Vietnam was Kennedy's war, even after his death, he fails to properly emphasize the total lack of any evidence supporting speculation about Kennedy's withdrawal plans. He leaves wide open the possibility that troop deployment was purely an election strategy (as if that were any more acceptable) despite Noam Chomskys penetrating analysis of the Pentagon Papers showing that there is absolutely no hint in the internal record that anybody in the administration favored withdrawal without total victory.

Hersh is also suspiciously light on the ruthlessness of Kennedy's strategic hamlet and pacification programs in Indochina. Such omissions allow the casual reader to come away from the book without a real sense of the brutality embodied in the policies Hersh examines exclusively from the corridors of power. Nor does Hersh force the greater historical issues of American imperial ambition that couch the episodes he relays. Such lack of context fails to properly situate the corruption of Kennedy within the broader corruption and deceit that is the heart of the American Century. People now know for certain that Kennedy ordered the assassination of foreign leaders, but do they understand the historical and economic issues at work behind these assassinations? Do they understand why Kennedy subverted any regime that resisted American hegemony? The standard Cold War line left implicit in the book--that we were fighting a war of survival against the evil Soviets--is a far more dangerous myth than that of Camelot, but Hersh does not seem interested in drawing back this curtain; for to do so would reveal how the structural nature of this dark side goes far beyond the misdoings of a single administration. Any radical conclusions drawn from Dark Side are ultimately left to the reader.

Yet despite these inevitable faults of omission, emphasis, and context, the book remains a masterful snapshot of power in modern America. And we are all indebted to Seymour Hersh for reminding us that this power is never pretty, even when we'd most like to think so.

About the Author
Jonah Weiss has written about arms control for Freezerbox and is a frequent contributor to numerous small magazines.
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