How JFK’s Secrets Fed a Conspiracy Culture

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Timothy Naftali headlined “How JFK’s Secrets Fed Conspiracy Culture”:

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, remains America’s ur-conspiracy—a source of continuing skepticism about the possibility of official truth for both the left and the right. Sixty years later, it’s time to acknowledge that a major reason for this enduring suspicion is Kennedy himself.

Contrary to the image that he and his allies worked so hard to promote while he was alive, JFK was a man of secrets, and when he died he was engaged in many active conspiracies, both small and large. None of them was responsible for his death, but each would entail a cover-up to protect his legacy. And these cover-ups had a deeply negative effect on the American public’s trust in government, including its ability to get to the bottom of what really happened in Dallas in 1963.

Why the secrets? A deeply competitive and intelligent man, Kennedy believed that to succeed in politics he needed to hide several aspects of his personality—his illnesses, his womanizing, his essentially pragmatic policy instincts. He needed to be a juggler to keep together a fraying Democratic coalition that included white supremacists as well as New Deal progressives. Soon after he won the presidential nomination in 1960, Kennedy used secret back-channels to communicate to southern Democrats that he found the party’s civil-rights platform too radical. Once elected, he sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to negotiate a secret nuclear test-ban agreement with the Soviet Union, without telling his own national security adviser or secretary of state.

Like his Republican predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, JFK believed in covert action as a substitute for war. Even after the CIA’s disastrously failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, he went on to approve CIA operations in Germany, France, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, British Guiana, Haiti and a few other countries whose identities remain classified. On top of all this secrecy, the Kennedy White House operated so that the president could conduct clandestine love affairs in his residence and while on tour.

Kennedy was determined to hide the extent of his secrets from his political allies, especially the liberal intellectuals whose approval he sought. Only his brother RFK was trusted with most of them—for instance, the fact that the president supported military coups and intervened in elections in Latin America, contrary to his stated foreign policy. When Robert Kennedy was asked, in 1964, whether the CIA might have assassinated a foreign leader without approval, he said: “No…They wouldn’t have done it without telling me.” Decades later, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, told me that there had been “nonsharables” between the brothers in foreign policy that even he didn’t expect to know.

After Dallas, Robert Kennedy led the effort to preserve his late brother’s secrets. He arranged for lucrative book contracts for several administration insiders, with the understanding that he would have final say on any manuscript before it was published. He dismantled JFK’s secret taping system, placed the tapes in a vault and launched a secret transcription program to determine what, if anything, could be shared with historians and the general public. The first product of this effort was RFK’s memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thirteen Days,” which was published after his own assassination in 1968.

Robert Kennedy didn’t live to see the greatest threat to his brother’s legacy of secrets. In 1975, after the twin shocks of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Congress established the Church Committee to investigate U.S. intelligence agencies. For former lieutenants of the martyred Kennedys, it was important that the brothers not be associated with the cascading revelations about how the CIA had plotted to assassinate foreign leaders.

According to records I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, just as investigators from the Church Committee were to begin their research in John F. Kennedy’s presidential records, staffers for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, then the keeper of the flame, removed tapes from the family-controlled vault. By the time the government acquired the tapes later that year, recordings from June 1963, when JFK ramped up covert action against Castro, were missing. And they’re still missing today.

The Church Committee concluded that it couldn’t find evidence that Kennedy had authorized any assassination plots. During the Cold War, deniability was built into the way presidential records were kept, so any authorization of secret activity was hard to prove. But the secrecy deprived Americans of a clear understanding of how the Kennedy White House operated, and the Camelot myth—the idea that a noble, untainted leader died in Dallas—served to deepen the public’s sense that secret, malevolent forces, which some called the “deep state,” must have brought about the calamity.

A Gallup poll released this month show that 65% of Americans believe that a conspiracy was responsible for the JFK assassination. Over the last 10 years, the share of the public that believes the CIA was involved in the killing has risen from 7% to 16%—possibly a reflection of President Donald Trump’s sustained attacks on the agency and the “deep state” in general. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the slain RFK, has also contributed to the conspiracy theories, telling an interviewer earlier this year that “There is overwhelming evidence that the CIA was involved in [JFK’s] murder.”

We now have a more complicated view of Kennedy’s private life and his position on civil rights, but his story continues to evoke a sense of lost innocence. If only he had lived, many people still believe, the U.S. would have been spared the psychic and moral ordeals of Vietnam and Watergate.

In fact, presidential and CIA documents declassified in recent years, due to pressure for the release of so-called “assassination records,” confirm that JFK, like other Cold War presidents, didn’t hesitate to employ deception, espionage and covert action. These presidential conspiracies were responsible for the many loose ends uncovered by investigators in the 1970s, but today it seems that only historians are looking through the rubble of old walls of secrecy.

Timothy Naftali, a senior research scholar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and co-author of “One Hell of a Gamble” and “Khrushchev’s Cold War,” is at work on a presidential biography of John F. Kennedy.

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