On the approaching 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, the obvious question arises: What difference does it make? A half century has passed since the assassination. It’s now history. Why spend any time on it? What relevance does it have to people living today, especially young people to whom the question “Where were you when you learned Kennedy was assassinated?” obviously has no relevance at all.
The answer is: There is a straight line from the Kennedy assassination to NSA spying, CIA assassinations, the military-industrial complex, and all the others aspects of the national-security state that have become an entrenched and permanent part of America’s governmental structure.
Don’t forget, after all, what we have learned about the Kennedy administration and the national-security establishment as information has slowly been disclosed over the past 50 years, thanks largely to assassination researchers: By the time he was assassinated, there was a vicious war that was been waged between Kennedy and the national-security establishment, a war that was being waged beneath the radar screen.
Why is that important? Because if Kennedy had won the war, it is a virtual certainty that the American people today would be living in a society that is totally different from the one in which we now live. That is, one without a vast military establishment, a CIA, and a NSA.
Today, I’d say most American would be shocked at such a notion. From the first grade on up, every American is inculcated with the notion that the national-security apparatus is absolutely essential to “national security” and even the survival of our nation.
And that’s precisely the way the CIA, the Pentagon, the Washington establishment, and American conservatives felt throughout the 1950s and 1960s. They were absolutely convinced that the only thing preventing a communist takeover of the United States was a strong national-security establishment.
While defenders of the Warren Report oftentimes describe people who challenge that report for being paranoid, nothing can compare to the paranoia that afflicted the national-security establishment during the 50s and 60s. In their minds, communists were everywhere. Even worse, according to them, the worldwide communist movement was guided by a cabal situated in the Kremlin, which was moving communists into positions all over the world, like chess pieces. What better proof of that than Cuba, a communist outpost only 90 miles away from American shores? Worst of all, communism was also considered an infection, one that was contagious, one that had already entered the body politic in the form of Social Security and the civil rights movement, which was calling for racial integration.
This was the mindset that U.S. officials developed after World War II and did their best to inculcate into the American people. America’s partner and ally during the war, the Soviet Union, replaced Nazi Germany as the new official enemy, one that was certain put America into the Red zone if Americans didn’t adopt a vast national-security establishment to oppose it.
Don’t forget: After prior wars, the standing army was dismantled, in accordance with the Founding Fathers antipathy toward standing armies. Moreover, never before in American history had there been an intelligence agency, especially one with the power to carry out covert operations. Never had there been a NSA, an agency with the power to secretly spy on people. Most Americans understood that all these things were attributes of totalitarian regimes, not free societies.
But the warfare statists convinced Americans that these totalitarian-like devices had now become necessary in order to prevent a communist takeover of the United States. Opposition to these devices was considered suspect by the national-security establishment, even traitorous and cowardly in the face of the communist threat. The national-security statists were convinced that they were the only things standing in the way of a communist takeover of America.
But then along comes Kennedy.
For 50 years the court historians have taught the American people that Kennedy’s beliefs were no different from those of any other 20th-century president. Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. They were all of the same mindset, of the same philosophy, we have long been taught. The post-World War II presidents, they said, were all fierce Cold Warriors, fierce anti-communists, and fierce interventionists.
But as documents have slowly leaked out over the years since Kennedy was assassinated — documents that the national-security establishment was doing its best to keep secret — we have learned that it was all a lie. In actuality, by the time he was assassinated, Kennedy’s vision was contrary to that of the national-security establishment. Cautious not to move too fast too soon, it is nonetheless clear that Kennedy was slowly but surely moving America in an entirely different direction, one that was antithetical to that of the national-security statists.
Kennedy was challenging the “communists are coming to get us” paradigm that formed the justification of the national-security state. And the national-security statists knew it. He was opposing everything the generals and the CIA officials statists stood for and believed. The result was one of the fiercest political and bureaucratic wars in U.S. history — a war between Kennedy and the national-security establishment — a war that was being waged beneath the radar screen — a war whose stakes were the very highest for the future direction of our nation.
That war is the subject of Douglas Horne’s excellent series that The Future of Freedom Foundation is currently publishing, appropriately entitled “JFK’s War With the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated.” It’s also the theme of the excellent book JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglass. Indeed, as more and more previously secret information has been divulged in the last 50 years, thanks to the tenacity and determination of assassination researchers, the credible section of the assassination research movement seems to have coalesced behind the notion that as a result of this war, the national-security establishment had much more motive for ridding our nation of Kennedy than did Oswald, whose motive is still unknown to this day.
Also see the recent article in The Atlantic: “JFK vs. the Military” by longtime Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek
The fact is that there was an enormous conflict of visions between Kennedy and the national-security establishment. On one side you have the CIA and the Pentagon, people who are fierce anticommunists, who want the United States to invade Cuba, oust Fidel Castro from power, and install a pro-U.S. dictator, similar to the CIA regime-change operations in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Chile. Even worse, convinced that nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States is inevitable anyway, they want Kennedy to attack the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike with the aim of wiping out most of the country before they can retaliate.
On the other side, you have Kennedy, who comes into office as pretty much a standard Cold Warrior but whose beliefs take a radical shift after the Cuban Missile Crisis. He decides that the Cold War isn’t necessary. He decides that the United States and the Soviet Union can coexist in peace, much as the United States and China (and Russia, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba) do today. That’s what his famous Peace Speech at American University is all about, a speech that was broadcast all across the Soviet Union.
But the most telling part of the war that was being waged between JFK and the national-security establishment were the secret negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to end the Cold War. Why telling? Because Kennedy didn’t bring the military into what he was secretly doing. And he didn’t bring the CIA into it either. Imagine that: Here the president of the United States is secretly negotiating with the Soviet Union to end the Cold War and he doesn’t even advise the Pentagon or the CIA of what he is doing. What better reflection of the depth of the war than that?
Of course, there is the ongoing debate on whether Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam. That really isn’t the critical issue though. The critical issue is what the national-security establishment believed he was going to do. And based on his order to the Pentagon to begin the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam just before he was assassinated, there is no question as to what the generals and the CIA officials believed he would do, especially after the 1964 election.
What would have happened if Kennedy had succeeded in ending the Cold War? Well, remember, this was 1963, only about 15 years after the passage of the National Security Act. That was plenty of time for the military-industrial complex and CIA to expand their budgets, power, and influence. But at that point, everyone knew what the justification for the national-security states was: the Cold War. With no Cold War, there would have been no reason for continuing the existence of the national-security state establishment.
Of course, when the Cold War finally did end in 1989, we all know that the national-security apparatus wasn’t dismantled and instead continued to remain in existence. But by that time, it had had another quarter-century to become a permanent and entrenched part of America’s governmental structure. Moreover, by that time most Americans had been inculcated with the belief that a vast military establishment was absolutely necessary to their peace and safety and to “national security.”
Given Kennedy’s negative attitude toward the national-security state, however, it is a virtual certainty that had he succeeded in ending the Cold War, he would have also sought to dismantle the national-security state, given that the justification for its existence—the Cold War—would have disintegrated and especially given his antipathy toward the Pentagon and the CIA.
That’s why the stakes in Kennedy’s war against the national-security establishment were so high. If Kennedy had lived and succeeded in ending the Cold War, America would have moved in an entirely different direction, one without a national-security state. Ironically, today’s national-security statists take the exact same position as their counterparts who were warring against Kennedy in 1963 — that America couldn’t survive without a national-security state.
But as we all know, Kennedy didn’t prevail because he was assassinated before he could finalize an agreement to end the Cold War with Khrushchev. Since his successor, Lyndon Johnson, shared the same Cold War mindset as the national-security establishment, negotiations to end the Cold War ended, followed by another 25 years of Cold War (and the Vietnam War), followed by the war on terrorism, torture, indefinite detention, NSA surveillance schemes, out of control federal spending, and all the others things that come with the national security state—the things that we would likely be living without if Kennedy had lived and seen his vision fulfilled.