Chris Harman

Thinking it through

One of the bad guys

(February 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.150, February 1992, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Oliver Stone has made a very powerful film about the assassination of John F Kennedy. It will enthral many socialists, because it shows the virtually the whole American establishment as a bunch of crooks.

Yet it is a film which is giving new life to one of the most pervasive and unfounded of political myths – that JFK was a heroic figure, bent on cleaning up and liberalising American society, and that his assassination was responsible for everything that went wrong afterwards.

Stone himself has made it clear that this is what he himself thinks. He says that, as a result of the assassination,

‘We’ve had the race wars, the Martin Luther King killing and the Robert Kennedy killing. The country has really had a civil war.’

He says his aim is ‘create an alternative myth to the myth of the Warren Commission [which decided a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed Kennedy], to explore the true meaning of the shooting, what the murder of John Kennedy meant to his country, why he was killed.’ This ‘alternative myth’ argues a conspiracy of the military-industrial complex, aimed at putting Lyndon Baines Johnson in power and reversing policies that were leading to the creation of peace, a welfare state and civil rights.

But it is a myth that bears little resemblance to reality. There might well have been more than one person involved in the assassination. There were enough right wing nuts around in the US in the early 1960s to plan such a thing and to exploit Oswald’s unstable personality for their own ends.

There may even have been a high level cover up by a panicky political establishment worried about exposing some of the nastier behaviour of its freelance thugs – although if so, it is surprising that concrete evidence did not come to light during the immediate post-Watergate period.

But there certainly was not any major shift in US policy from Kennedy to Johnson.

The Kennedy brothers were typical of the nasty pieces of work produced by mainstream politics in the US. Bobby Kennedy had worked for Joe McCarthy, and John Kennedy had, conveniently, been absent from the Senate when a key vote attacking McCarthy took place.

Far from John Kennedy’s election campaign in 1960 challenging the military-industrial complex, a central theme was to claim Republican ‘neglect’ had enabled the USSR to get ahead of the US with a ‘missile gap’. It was he who took the world close to nuclear war during the ‘Cuba crisis’ of 1962, with Bobby Kennedy insisting the Republicans would never again be able to claim the Democrats were ‘soft on Communism.’

Kennedy followed very much in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor Eisenhower in pushing mild civil rights legislation through Congress, but then doing little to provide the federal resources needed to impose it on segregationist – and Democrat – state governments. He tried to stop black leaders organising the great March on Washington of 1963, while Bobby, as attorney general, told black students ‘freedom riding and sitting is shit’, and urged the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, to get dirt on Martin Luther King.

As an imperialist John Kennedy was second to none. He had a bitter hatred for the Cuban revolution which had overthrown the American-backed dictator Batista at the beginning of 1959. In his 1960 election campaign he accused the Republicans of not doing enough to stop the ‘loss’ of Cuba, and six months later he gave the go ahead for the CIA to launch an invasion of the island – the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco. When this failed he set about paying known members of the mafia to try to assassinate Castro – with one attempt, using a poison pen, occurring on the very day Kennedy himself was killed.

Finally, Kennedy was as much to blame as any one else for the build up of American troops in Vietnam. He increased the number of US troops there from 400 to 18,000 and gave the first go ahead for the use of napalm and defoliant in a desperate attempt to prop up the dictator Diem.

So on every front there was enormous continuity between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The continuity did not just apply to foreign affairs. If pressure from the rising black movement had forced Kennedy to make speeches about civil rights – eventually claiming the credit for the March on Washington he had opposed – increased pressure forced Johnson, reluctantly, to take some action, pushing through the first effective legislation for 90 years. And as the tensions in US society exploded into a series of ghetto uprisings from the summer of 1964 onwards, he sought to reduce them with reforms like the War on Poverty and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid.

If the dream of the ‘Great Society’ exploded into bitter confrontation and violence in 1968, it was not because Johnson had replaced Kennedy, but because the combination to which they were both committed, of imperialism abroad and welfare palliatives at home, fell apart. It was bound to, for the simple reason that US imperialism no longer had the economic power to attempt to rule the world without squeezing its own workers and ethnic minorities.

It is this reality which any myth about JFK obscures, however well intentioned those who propagate it. For they are saying the present system is in essence all right, if only we can change the personnel at the top, putting in good guys instead of bad guys.

The point is very important in 1992. For in the US today there is a deep mood of cynicism with the old order, a mood which is worrying some of America’s rulers. If they can’t guarantee keeping Bush in office, they will be all to happy to see some ‘moderate’ Democrat like Bill Clinton don the mantle of JFK and ride to victory. They know they will have someone committed, as JFK was, to keeping the world safe for America and America safe for its ruling class. And, unfortunately, Stone’s ‘alternative myth’ will have helped them.

Last updated on 18 June 2010