Is this what revolution looks like – Grand Slams and coffee on Formica?
Growing up right on the Mason-Dixon Line of mixed Hoosier-Kentuckian-West Virginian stock, I could never get a handle on exactly whether I was a southerner. Louisville and Southern Indiana had strong unions and lots of Catholics (clearly Midwestern traits) but also generous use of the pronoun “you all” by pick-up truck driving GED holders whose workweeks ended with trips to their favorite fishin’ spots.
I did not venture into an unambiguously southern area until 1983 when, at age 25, I decided to spend a few leftover Christmas vacation days from my newspaper reporting job in Southern Indiana and travel to Atlanta.
Would it be the cosmopolitan, diverse “too busy to hate” city of its major-league image, or a provincial small town with tall buildings, as some critics regard it?
The trip shed little light on that question; the below-zero temperature was the second coldest ever recorded in Atlanta and even though there was no snow and the sky was cloudless blue, the place absolutely shut down. Nope, I’m not a southerner, I decided as I motored almost alone along the normally packed freeways, enjoying the easiest big-city driving I had ever experienced.
A Yankee gets great restaurant service, too, when he is the only one there, unless the weather “crisis” has prevented the wait staff from coming to work.
It warmed up to the normal Southern December high 40s just as I decided to amend my itinerary and head west on Interstate 20 to Birmingham.
Ah, the real south, in its meteorological element – and away from Atlanta’s glitz and economic verve. Birmingham, I figured, would be different.
The city too hateful in the early ‘60s to get busy and accept integration. The church bombings. Fire hoses on people peaceably assembling. Bull Connor. That was the Birmingham I knew from flashpoint news coverage and assigned civics class readings.
Once in the real place, I drove through an area called Red Mountain I had heard was lovely (yes, the homes and trees indeed were, but the police car that tailed me the whole time took the joy out of the tour), then stopped at a Denny’s. There, architectural mediocrity aside, the feeling was more uplifting.
Blacks and whites dined, with the dress of both varying from suits to work ware. An utterly ordinary scene, but that is what made me gaze in awe for a moment around the room.
For this display of everyday, nondescript familiarity to come about, it took children dying in bombings, peaceful demonstrators being gassed and beaten, followed by a long obstinate Congress finally passing the most sweeping domestic legislation in the nation’s history.
Twenty years later, the fruits of this heroic struggle were that people of all colors can eat lunch oblivious to the racial justice angle of their joint presence as they chat about the weather, church and the upcoming football bowl games.
Is this what revolution looks like – Grand Slams and coffee on Formica?
As I learned much more over the next couple of decades about the issue of racial justice, I came to understand that the crucial matter anymore is whether the servers and dishwashers at restaurants such as Denny’s can make adequate and stable wages and afford health insurance — not who can be served.
Being able to ride on any part of the bus is a great and overdue boost to human dignity, but it becomes largely a symbolic victory if there is no adequate job to which to ride.
We have so far to go to achieve true equality, but recalling a winter afternoon in Birmingham assures me that if that city can go from homicidal carnage to casual mixed-race dining in 20 years, we can end hunger, war, and patriarchy.
And someday a visitor to Rwanda, Stonewall, Guatemala or Immokalee will contrast the history of suffering there with the present equality and nonviolence and marvel at what is gloriously mundane. Continue reading “The First Time I Went South — I Mean Really South”→
For opponents of U.S. foreign policy misdeeds, limiting our horizons to “JFK” is to wallow in sentimental US-centric lore, not genuine radicalism.
by Brian Arbenz
Oliver Stone made the wrong movie.
Instead of blending some facts and much supposition into a story of how a peace-loving visionary President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in what might have been a conspiracy, Stone’s 1991 “JFK” could have been a movie about the assassinations involving Kennedy’s White House which were conspiracies – beyond a doubt. Were it titled “JFK,” however, this movie would be named for the antagonist. Yes, Stone could have used his 3 hours and 26 minutes of holding a nation spellbound to unmask conspiracies by John F. Kennedy’s administration to assassinate or overthrow multiple heads of state.
Of course, telling people what is already agreed to be fact would be artistically and commercially riskier because that story likely would fail to dazzle them like the “what if” spectacularism of the movie Stone made. People my age and older feel separation anxiety from the sudden and unforeseeable loss of our charismatic president; Stone’s “JFK” treads heavily on that shared experience. Yet regarding John F. Kennedy’s role in carrying out conspiracies against Ngo Dinh Diem, Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro, a three-hour tutorial explaining those would become mired in the arcane in the minds of the moviegoing public.
It isn’t government censorship any more that keeps Americans from intimately knowing the facts about our nation’s real conspiracies. It is the ho-hum factor.
So, we are inured to the truth that JFK’s administration tried to kill Fidel Castro, overthrew South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in a CIA-launched coup that resulted in Diem’s death, and fully cooperated with attempts by the Eisenhower White House to kill Congolese elected president Patrice Lumumba, and helped establish the corrupt dictatorship that replaced the social reformer Lumumba, who was murdered three days before JFK took the oath of office.
Of course, my suggested alternate movie should not really be called “JFK,” because it certainly wasn’t just John F. Kennedy who plotted illegal and intrusive interventions. His presidency was merely a brief shining moment in more than a century of covert actions carried out by corrupt U.S. foreign policy makers for vested interests.
Whereas the real-life JFK was not the conspirator, he also was not the valiant insurgent against the cold war as he is championed by the didactic movie’s central character, maverick prosecutor Jim Garrison. Played by Kevin Costner, Garrison argues the case before a jury of millions that the military industrial complex removed the president in a coup on Nov. 22, 1963 to propel the nation into the Vietnam War, with a misfit ex-marine being only a patsy.
Let me first, nonetheless, acknowledge that not all appreciation of John F. Kennedy is merely sentimental. He absolutely did stand apart from the cold warrior orthodoxy in the world’s most nervous moment. In October 1962 JFK was there for us (the 4-year-old me included) preventing – barely – a nuclear war, and he signed the treaty banning above ground nuclear tests the following year.
Much is overlooked, however, by Oliver Stone and other advocates of the theory that JFK was going to pull us out of Vietnam, but the CIA and the military and its contractors wouldn’t stand for that. In fact, as noted above, the Kennedy Administration ordered the CIA’s overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, a secret act which made the U.S. a regime builder, therefore more heavily involved in the then nine-year-long war between North and South Vietnam.
History.com said of the Kennedy-backed overthrow of Diem:
“…the United States was more heavily involved in the South Vietnamese quagmire than ever. Its participation in the overthrow of the Diem regime signaled a growing impatience with South Vietnamese management of the war. From this point on, the United States moved step by step to become more directly and heavily involved in the fight against the communist rebels.”
And regarding Congo, Kennedy, as president-elect, was in on a CIA assassination plot (devised under Eisenhower’s presidency) against the democratically elected president Patrice Lumumba, whose pro-labor stances threatened the western mining interests wanting Congo’s rich mineral resources at lower costs. Just after Kennedy took office, (his inauguration was three days after Lumumba was murdered by Congolese opponents strongly supported by, and likely directed by the Belgian and U.S. governments), his administration finished off Lumumba’s democratic anti-colonialist revolution by propping up corrupt dictator Joseph Mobutu, a lackey for corporate interests.
Moreover, the Kennedy Administration, possibly without the president’s okay, tried to assassinate Fidel Castro to end his Cuban revolution for the same reasons – its widely popular economic and social models threatened corporate profits. Attorney General Robert Kennedy knew about the plot against Castro and very likely would have told his brother of it. Moreover, JFK backed U.S. sabotage against Cuba’s economy, falsified a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union to raise spending on the nuclear arms race and deceived the world in a speech in Seattle in November 1961, saying the U.S. is at a disadvantage against the Soviets because assassination, disinformation and counterfeit mobs were tactics we simply could not use. We certainly had used them under his presidency and/or Eisenhower’s to destroy democracy and human rights in Guatemala and Iran, as well as Congo, all to boost the profits of well-connected fruit, oil and mining corporations.
In Oliver Stone’s movie, there actually is a reference to our 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s government, but President Kennedy himself is heroized throughout the film. The cinematic JFK is shown as firmly intending to pull our limited military contingent out of Vietnam by the end of 1965, and some agreeing with Stone’s narrative even maintain he intended to end the nuclear arms race. Then came six seconds of (however many) gunshots in Dallas, and Kennedy’s successor – described by the sermonizing Jim Garrison as “Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings” – scuttled all our hopes with a secret order sending 600,000 young Americans into the war.
The notion of John F. Kennedy the peacenik counterpoised to a war machine preparing to cut him down in Texas on the thousandth day of his presidency can be dispelled with some sobering words from the president himself, delivered right there and then. Hours before he was assassinated, JFK spoke in Ft. Worth not of disarmament and peace, but of his massive military buildup. Granted, he was wanting to assuage the rabid disdain for him in a state controlled by rich war hawks, but the numbers in this Nov. 22, 1963 speech, the last he would deliver, stand as empirical evidence that JFK had been no threat to the military industrial complex, that force which the conspiracy theorists insist had decided the president was such a roadblock to their agenda he should be removed in a coup.
”In the past 3 years,” Kennedy said in Fort Worth, “we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counterinsurgency forces which are engaged now in South Vietnam by 600 percent.”
These numbers are not found in the “JKF” screenplay; neither is any mention of JFK removing Diem or undermining Lumumba. The movie, however, includes a brief portrayal of new President LBJ on Nov. 26, 1963 eagerly signing NSAM 273, a National Security Action Memorandum on Vietnam, which had substantial differences from NSAM 263,a Vietnam plan signed by JFK Oct. 2, 1963. The timing of Johnson’s signature four days after Kennedy fell dead by the grassy knoll is used as evidence of the movie’s central thesis – that President Kennedy was killed in a coup to keep the U.S. military from pulling out of Vietnam.
There is no question that a headstrong President Lyndon Johnson pushed us deeper into Vietnam faster than Kennedy would have. Being an oil state icon, Johnson was almost certainly moved to prop up the Saigon government quickly by talk that huge oil reserves were under the South China Sea.
While parts of the LBJ-signed NSAM 273 do talk more directly of U.S. intervention – saying our objective is to “win” the struggle rather than to help the South Vietnamese win it, there is more in the memo which should douse the fervor of those linking the assassination so directly to the buildup in Vietnam. Section 2 of NSAM 273 states:
“The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U. S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963.”
That was Kennedy’s plan in NSAM 263 to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1963, then withdraw all our troops by the end of 1965.
Critics of the LBJ conspiracy theory also note that in that Kennedy-signed 263 memo, the plan to withdraw them in those two phases seems to be contingent on the South Vietnamese military and government becoming stronger and more able to hold their own on the battlefield without us.
Specifically, those critics note that section 3 of NSAM 263 says of the rationale for a U.S. withdraw:
“Major U.S. assistance in support of this military effort is needed only until the insurgency has been suppressed or until the national security forces of the Government of South Viet Nam are capable of suppressing it.
“Secretary McNamara and General Taylor reported their judgment that the major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965, although there may be a continuing requirement for a limited number of U.S. training personnel. They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”
This timetable seems unrealistically optimistic, given the corruption within the Saigon government and arrogant attitudes in its military ranks. Critics of the assassination conspiracy theory site NSAM 263 not as JFK’s plan for peace, but as the first example of “light at the end of the tunnel” syndrome – that pathology of always seeing us being nearly able to pull out of Vietnam — that worsened under LBJ, keeping us mired in a war that increasingly was seen as purposeless.
There is no doubt that Lyndon Johnson’s hubris and penchant for back room deals sent us down a faster track into the war than Jack Kennedy would have, but the differing attitudes of each man were not the only factor in weighing how JFK, had he lived, would have dealt with Vietnam compared to Johnson’s handling of the issue. Circumstances on the ground in Vietnam being certain to turn worse than projected in memo 263, combined with a re-election battle against an anti-communist GOP candidate likely would have pressed JFK into a deeper war. Polls in 1963 showed Kennedy was vulnerable against either Barry Goldwater or Nelson Rockefeller.
Conspiracy theorists, whose work has become an industry and whose gatherings sometimes resemble religious revivals, have weakened actual activism against the United States’ illegal and imperialist foreign policy aggressions by making the proof hinge on the JFK assassination conspiracy theory. The U.S. CIA and secretive corporate interests cozy with it do assassinate leaders, destroy democracy, start wars, use torture and kill innocents — all to protect the profits of corporations such as United Fruit and ITT and to keep Persian Gulf dictatorships buying up U.S. currency to finance our deficits.
This is not a matter of debate. Yet, Oliver Stone, authors such as Harrison Livingstone and Robert Groden and innumerable bloggers and video documentarians devote the commanding heights of popular media to championing a faulty theory that safely absorbs the passions of activists into a flood plain of drama, selective facts and outright fallacies.
The pro-conspiracy people have cherry picked evidence from much more than the two National Security memos.
In an oft-cited 1963 interview with Walter Cronkite, JFK declares of Vietnam: “In the final analysis it is the people and the Government [of South Vietnam] itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear.” But his next words, left out of most conspiracy theorist accounts, are: “But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.”
Of course, some defenders of the Oliver Stone view note that memo 263 says the plan to withdraw from Vietnam should be kept secret for the time being, which could explain the above statement.
Still, an Oval Office interview with JFK on Sept. 9, 1963 by NBC duo Chet Huntley and David Brinkley displayed more unwavering JFK interventionism concerning Vietnam:
Mr. HUNTLEY: “Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Vietnam now?”
The PRESIDENT: “I don’t think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost, a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don’t want that.”
Mr. BRINKLEY: “Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called ‘domino theory,’ that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?”
The PRESIDENT: “No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists….
“What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say, because they don’t like events in Southeast Asia or they don’t like the Government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay.
“We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.”
Brian Arbenz has been opposing CIA crimes for more than 30 years as a writer, researcher and street protester, including below on April 25, 1987, a national day of protest.