Exclusive: For weeks, Chris Matthews has been flogging his book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, driving it up the ranks of best-seller lists, but the biography is as superficial and clueless as the MSNBC pundit often is, missing Kennedy’s true complexity, writes James DiEugenio.
By James DiEugenio
Chris Matthews, author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, has had a long and plodding career as a Washington political insider, surviving and indeed prospering by staying safely within the bounds of the city’s conventional wisdom.
In his new biography of President John F. Kennedy, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews brought this shallowness to his analysis of an extraordinarily complex historical figure, with the effect of reinforcing the Establishment’s eroded – and outmoded – interpretation of who JFK was.
Matthews either set out with this goal in mind or was unqualified to take on such a difficult mission. Clearly, the fast-talking and opinionated TV host did not master the latest scholarship about Kennedy’s views and actions on a variety of topics, from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam.
Matthews began his career in Washington as a police officer with the United States Capitol Police, according to his earlier book, Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think. Matthews then went to work as an aide for four Democratic members of Congress before a failed attempt in 1974 to win a congressional seat from his home state of Pennsylvania.
He next became a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and – after Carter lost the 1980 election – Matthews went to work for House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, serving as an aide in O’Neill’s rather quixotic battles against President Ronald Reagan’s reshaping of the American agenda, a war that O’Neill decisively lost.
After O’Neill’s losing struggle with Reagan, Matthews was employed in print journalism for 15 years. He was the Washington D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner from 1987-2000. And for two years he was the nationally syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
During this era, when liberalism was distinctly passé in Washington, Matthews repackaged himself as a more conservative, Establishment-defending media figure. For instance, on Dec. 6, 1995, he wrote a column criticizing Oliver Stone’s film Nixon for using a passage from H. R. Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power.
In Haldeman’s book, Richard Nixon’s former White House chief of staff describes a dramatic confrontation with CIA Director Richard Helms, after which Haldeman came to believe that Nixon knew that, somehow, the CIA was involved in the JFK assassination.
After Stone used this information in his film, Matthews went to interview a dying Haldeman, who denied originating the passage and blamed it on his co-writer, Joseph DiMona. But Matthews overlooked the fact that in a paperback version of the book, Haldeman had written that the “writing style is DiMona’s. The opinions and conclusions are essentially mine.” (p. 422)
Further, in an interview with Dr. Gary Aguilar in December of 1995, DiMona said the book went through five drafts. Haldeman made many changes, but none to that passage. In fact, on Feb. 15, 1978, DiMona made a similar comment to the Washington Post about Haldeman’s editorial control, which Matthews either missed or ignored.
Less than two years later, when Matthews wrote a (very poor) dual biography called Kennedy and Nixon, the Los Angeles Times saw an angle and let Oliver Stone write an unflattering review of the book. Two weeks later, on June 30, 1996, the Los Angeles Times allowed Matthews to respond. In his reply, he said he had nothing but contempt for Stone and called him a liar. Matthews went after Stone again in an Examiner column. (Jan. 1, 1998)
Having polished his Establishment credentials by attacking one of Official Washington’s least favorite Americans, Matthews soon became a presence on TV, first as a commentator for ABC’s Good Morning America and then on his own CNBC show called Politics with Chris Matthews.
That program morphed into Hardball, which is known for obsessing over the trivia of political tactics. Ever sensitive to the prevailing political winds, Matthews also announced on Hardball that he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. In 2002, he began a syndicated weekend program called The Chris Matthews Show.
Hardball eventually moved to MSNBC, and many have observed that, as Keith Olbermann began to be the big ratings winner at MSNBC, there seemed to be friction between the crusading progressive with a vision and Matthews, who had settled into greased rail success and become a shill for Business as Usual.
Yet the odd thing is that when Olbermann left MSNBC, his imprint was much wider than Matthews’s at the cable channel, for MSNBC is by far the most progressive major TV outlet. And today, Matthews’s program is the most conservative in MSNBC’s evening line-up.
Over the years, Matthews also has written six books, two of them are focused on John Kennedy, the aforementioned dual biography with Nixon and his new one.
To begin with faint praise, John Kennedy: Elusive Hero is a better book than Kennedy and Nixon. It almost had to be since the earlier 1996 effort was one of the worst Kennedy biographies this side of Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot.
In Elusive Hero, Matthews does a good enough job describing Kennedy’s famous military service and his rescue mission on PT 109. He also does serviceable sketches of Kennedy’s first runs for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The book is adequate, too, on the 1960 Democratic presidential primary and the 1960 convention.
But here begins the problems. There is little that is new in this book. And Matthews more or less admits this when he discusses his footnotes. (See pgs. 411-12) On those pages he states that his main sources for the work were the “collection of great books written about John F. Kennedy.”
On the previous page, he stated that his other main source was the interviews he did for his 1996 book. But in reality it’s worse than that. For if one looks at the footnotes and reads Matthews’s own comments on the subject, one of his favorite book sources is Herbert Parmet’s two-volume biography of Kennedy, which first appeared in 1982. This consisted of Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, and JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy.
I am familiar with these books since I used them in writing my first book entitled Destiny Betrayed. Looking back, I should not have. Parmet is a conventional historian in the manner and method of say David McCullough and the late Stephen Ambrose. He is not the kind of man who, as historians say, pushes the envelope or forges a new frontier for others to follow.
And with Kennedy, that is necessary since many of the things he was doing were rather unconventional – to the point that new information was still being discovered 40 years after his death. And we are still learning about them today; many years after Parmet published his rather obsolete books. Yet, in the face of that, Matthews still swears by Parmet.
Let me name just four books that do push the envelope and forge a new frontier, all of them released since Parmet’s. They are: JFK: Ordeal in Africa, The Kennedy Tapes, Battling Wall Street, and JFK and Vietnam. These books deepen our understanding of both John Kennedy and that turbulent age much more than the Parmet study does.
Considering who Matthews is, the reader will not be surprised to learn that there is not one footnote in the entire book related to any of these sources. This is remarkable because, as many Kennedy experts would say, those four books are in the forefront of Kennedy scholarship today.
Respectively, they deal with his policies on Africa — particularly the Congo crisis; his steering of the Cuban Missile Crisis; his economic policies; and his actions during the epochal Vietnam War.
What is particularly surprising is that, early on, Matthews writes that one of the things that attracted him to Kennedy and made him write this book was JFK’s management of the Missile Crisis. (See p. 9) But then why ignore The Kennedy Tapes? Since it is, from the American side, the most complete chronicling of the crisis we have today.
It is made up of the actual transcribed tapes that were made during those dangerous thirteen days when the world stood on the precipice of nuclear war. Any true historian always consults primary sources recorded during the actual event as his baseline. You can then supplement that with things like interviews after the fact, or memoirs written later. Matthews’s curious choice in historiography tells us something about his book.
What further illuminates Elusive Hero is its imbalance. The book is 406 pages long. Yet Matthews’ discussion of Kennedy’s presidency does not begin until page 321. Which means he deals with those rather eventful years in just 85 pages.
How can an author adequately describe things like the Congo crisis and the murder of Patrice Lumumba; the Laotian crisis; the construction of the Berlin Wall; the Bay of Pigs disaster; the debates over whether or not to insert combat troops into Vietnam; the tank faceoff at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin; the launching of the Peace Corps; the siege at Ole Miss over James Meredith; the Freedom Riders; the launching of the Mercury mission; Kennedy’s attempts to reconcile with Sukarno of Indonesia; and his bold and unprecedented firings of CIA Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Charles Cabell and Director of Plans Richard Bissell in just 85 pages?
And, incredibly, my list stops at the end of 1961! There’s almost two years to deal with yet. To give just one point of actual comparison: Ted Sorenson’s biography Kennedy is over 800 pages long. Yet he begins his discussion of Kennedy’s presidency on page 255.
So here is my question to Matthews: If you were a playwright, would you spend, say, 90 minutes of exposition in Act I and only 30 minutes for the tension-building and explosive climax in Acts II and III? Why would you do such a thing?
Matthews’s problematic approach might have some value if the author was trying to relate past formative events to later presidential decisions. That is, what did Kennedy do as a younger man that impacted his policy decisions while he was president? But this is what Matthews really does not do.
Take, for example, Kennedy’s consistent refusal to commit combat troops into Vietnam. This 1961 decision was made despite the fact that almost all his advisers urged Kennedy to do just that. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 138) It is a choice Kennedy never wavered on while he was in office.
Yet, it was reversed by President Lyndon Johnson in early 1965, just 14 months after Kennedy’s assassination. And Johnson’s decision was backed by former President Dwight Eisenhower. (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 206)
Now, any fairly inquisitive biographer would want to delve into this question. That is, why did Kennedy adamantly refuse to do what both his predecessor and his successor had no qualms about doing? Matthews does little delving or explaining. In fact, he does not even note the difference.
For instance, in Richard Mahoney’s work on Kennedy, he makes the young congressman’s trip to Saigon in 1951 a keystone of his milestone book JFK: Ordeal in Africa. He spends four pages dealing with both the journey and its aftermath. And he quotes Kennedy’s brother Robert as saying that this excursion had “a very, very major” impact on JFK’s thinking. (Mahoney, p. 12)
That’s because, while in Saigon, JFK met a man who was working for the State Department named Edmund Gullion, who had such an impact on Kennedy’s thinking about the Third World that President Kennedy brought him into the White House in 1961. There, Gullion became a central figure in Kennedy’s policy on the huge Congo crisis and other African and Asian trouble spots like Laos and Vietnam.
A Prescient Warning
The reason for Kennedy’s faith in Gullion related to the fact that he had explained to the young Kennedy that France could not win in Vietnam because they had no one to match the nationalistic appeal of Ho Chi Minh. And Gullion impressed upon Kennedy that this war was not about Communism versus capitalism; it was about colonialism versus independence.
Ho’s emotional appeal to the latter convinced tens of thousands of Vietnamese to the point that they would die rather than stay a colony of France. The French could never win that kind of guerrilla war of attrition.
So when Kennedy returned to America he expressed these ideas in a speech he gave in November of 1951: “This is an area of human conflict between civilizations striving to be born and those desperately trying to retain what they had had for so long.” He then added, “the fires of nationalism so long dormant have been kindled and are now ablaze. … Here colonialism is not a topic for tea-talk discussion but is the daily fare for millions of men.” (Mahoney, p. 14)
Any responsible biographer who had spent so many pages on Kennedy before he became president would understand that this Gullion acquaintance would be important to Kennedy’s future thinking on Vietnam. So what did Matthews do with these important materials?
First off, he completely omits the 1961 debates in the White House over the commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnam, an omission that is quite a feat in itself. As Gordon Goldstein notes, Kennedy’s advisers brought it up no less than nine times. Each time, Kennedy beat it back. (Lessons in Disaster, pgs. 52-60)
And Kennedy himself made the parallel to 1951. He told Arthur Schlesinger, “The war in Vietnam could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier.” (ibid p. 63.) Therefore, the linkage is made explicit.
It is telling to note that Matthews does include this exchange between JFK and Schlesinger in his book – but he edits out the part I have quoted. (Matthews, p. 393) As per the 1951 trip to Southeast Asia, Matthews treats it only cursorily. He deals with its impact on Kennedy in two paragraphs. (ibid, p. 119) And notably, he never even mentions the name of Edmund Gullion.
Now, another important incident in explaining Kennedy’s later policy on Vietnam is his reaction to 1954’s Operation Vulture. This was the plan put together by President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and Vice President Richard Nixon to relieve the doomed French garrison surrounded by Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. (See John Prados, The Sky Would Fall).
The plan was to fly over 150 American air sorties, to be climaxed by the use of three tactical atomic weapons. When word leaked out about this mission, Sen. Kennedy rose up and challenged the Secretary of State directly. He wanted to know how “the new Dulles policy and its dependence upon the threat of atomic retaliation will fare in these areas of guerrilla warfare.” (Mahoney, p. 16)
Kennedy said no amount of U.S. firepower would ever quell the Vietnamese rebellion because the Viet Minh were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But further, these guerrillas had the “sympathy and support of the people.” (ibid)
Operation Vulture was called off, but Eisenhower predicted that the fall of Vietnam would trigger a domino effect of communist takeovers in Southeast Asia. (ibid) Therefore, he set up a coalition of anticommunist states in the area called SEATO.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles then used this front to have the U.S. represented at the Geneva Conference that planned the future of Vietnam. This plan sealed America’s future involvement there.
Again, it is revealing to see what Matthews does with this episode. He deals with it in just four paragraphs. (p. 173) He says that here, for the first time, Kennedy “broke with the Eurocentric view of the Cold War.”
This is a strange — and strangely false — statement for two reasons. First of all, the Europeans did not instigate the Cold War. Most commentators would date its origins from the transmittal to Washington of the so-called Long Telegram from Russia. This was written by American diplomat George Kennan in February of 1946.
The construction of the Cold War was then led by President Harry Truman on the American side and Josef Stalin on the Russian side. The Europeans were in the middle.
Secondly, Matthews himself had (briefly) noted Kennedy’s Saigon visit in 1951. Consequently, Kennedy’s first attacks on the Dulles-Acheson view of the Cold War took place in November of that year. He kept up this attack through 1953. This included a May 1953 letter to John Foster Dulles asking him 47 questions about his present and future plans for American involvement in Southeast Asia. (Mahoney, p. 15)
Harkening Back to Munich
So this was not the first time Kennedy broke with the American Establishment on the Cold War. Matthews then does something even stranger. He tries to compare Kennedy’s views on Dien Bien Phu with his 1940 book Why England Slept, about the failure of English readiness to stop Nazi Germany.
But it is clear that in the 1940 book, Kennedy understood that World War II in Europe was a conventional big-power war. This is why he employed things like budgetary figures and graphs of arms growth from 1931 forward.
On the other hand, Kennedy understood that the war Ho Chi Minh was fighting was anything but conventional. It used classic guerrilla-style tactics that could not really be analyzed with data charts and graphs, as President Johnson would later so painfully discover. So this comparison is very misleading about Kennedy’s thinking on the subject.
Matthews then makes things worse by throwing in a Munich Conference analogy. (He interpolates the Munich analogy inaptly, but repeatedly, throughout the book.) Again, this makes no sense, because the thesis of Kennedy’s book was that England could not have resisted Hitler in 1938 even if she tried.
The reason being that she had not armed herself heavily enough in the prior years. England was therefore fortunate that the war did not come to its territory until late 1940, when she did have the military might to resist Germany.
Since the meeting with Gullion in 1951, Kennedy never thought the U.S. — or France — could defeat Ho Chi Minh. In fact, in 1963, he pegged the odds of an American victory at 100-1. (Goldstein p. 239) But further, as Kennedy’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote before he died, Kennedy never saw Vietnam — as Munich was — as an East-West test of the balance of power.
Lessons of Algeria
Let us now jump forward to another distortion by Matthews. On July 2, 1957, Kennedy took the floor of the Senate to deliver what the New York Times called the next day “the most comprehensive arraignment of Western policy toward Algeria yet presented by an American in public office.”
It was a blistering, unsparing indictment of the French refusal to acknowledge that she was repeating the mistakes of Vietnam just three years later, except this time in North Africa. She was again trying to hang on to a Third World colony, in a civil war she could not win, since it was not fought on conventional terms. And the colonized peoples were willing to die by the thousands for their independence.
But further, Kennedy also attacked the Eisenhower administration, and Richard Nixon by name, for not being a true friend of France. For a true friend would have escorted France to the negotiating table before she was forcibly kicked out. (The entire speech is contained in The Strategy of Peace, edited by Allan Nevins.)
The White House was not pleased. Nixon called the speech a political move to embarrass the administration. He further added that “Ike and his staff held a full fledged policy meeting to pool their thinking on the whys underlying Kennedy’s damaging fishing in troubled waters.” (Mahoney, p. 29) Kennedy’s speech was also directly attacked by both Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles.
How does Matthews characterize this powerful and profound address? He calls it Kennedy’s “first curtsy to the Democratic Left … a semaphore signaling that he shared the liberals’ more sophisticated attitudes.” (Matthews, p. 227)
Again, in the face of the adduced record, this is absurd. By then, Kennedy had been making these kinds of statements about imperialism for six years. And he had specifically attacked familiar liberal targets like Richard Nixon. So this was not a “first curtsy.”
But further, for many liberals, what Kennedy was saying was too incendiary even for them. For as Mahoney notes, when Kennedy made one of these Third World liberation themed speeches for Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, the candidate’s office wired him to “make no more statements in any way associated with the campaign.” (Mahoney, p. 18)
The question now becomes: Why does the author perform this consistent biographical distortion and misrepresentation on key episodes?
After reading the book and taking 12 pages of notes, it is my conclusion that Matthews had an agenda. That agenda was made pretty clear in his previous book, Kennedy and Nixon. And it continues here, in slightly more disguised form.
Matthews wants the reader to believe that JFK was not all what he is cracked up to be, that he was really just a classic Cold Warrior who wasn’t all that different from Nixon. This, of course, has been the message of most of the Establishment and the mainstream media from approximately the time of Oliver Stone’s film JFK in 1991. (And strangely, the message coincides with alleged icons of the traditional Left like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn.)
As shown above, the problem is that one can only make that argument by either distorting things, or completely omitting them. And Matthews is systematically rigorous in omitting key points.
For instance, in JFK: Ordeal in Africa, the reason Mahoney illuminates Kennedy’s thinking on Third World colonialism is as background to his actions in Congo in 1961. There, Kennedy pretty much reversed Eisenhower’s policy on Patrice Lumumba versus the Belgian colonialists.
And, in fact, Gullion played a key part in this reversal. There, Kennedy did something that would be considered exceptional today: He allied himself with Lumumba’s followers at the United Nations under the great Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjold and against the Belgian colonizers.
In fact, CIA Director Allen Dulles understood that Kennedy would be sympathetic to Lumumba. This is why it appears that he hurried up the CIA’s assassination attempt on the African leader so it would occur before Kennedy was inaugurated. (John Morton Blum, Years of Discord, pgs. 23-24)
Dulles was correct in that analysis. For a photo snapped by a White House photographer at the moment Kennedy got the news of Lumumba’s death reveals his face contorted in anguish. Amazingly, there is not one single word about either Congo or Lumumba in Matthews’s book.
On Cuba, Matthews does go into the Bay of Pigs disaster (pgs. 331-38). He says, that “Quickly, in the aftermath, Kennedy asked for the resignations of both Dulles and [CIA Director of Plans Richard] Bissell.” (Matthews, p. 332) This is not accurate.
First, he asked for their resignations plus that of Deputy Director Charles Cabell. Secondly, he did not ask them to resign, “quickly in the aftermath.” And by leaving that fact out, Matthews omits why Kennedy took the unprecedented step of terminating the entire top level of the CIA.
By the time of the firings, in late 1961, Kennedy had read the CIA’s own internal report on the debacle, written by Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick. He also read one he commissioned himself. This was done by General Maxwell Taylor. They were both quite harsh on the CIA’s planning and execution of the ill-fated operation.
In fact, Kirkpatrick’s report states that the CIA’s excuse for the failure, that Kennedy canceled the D-Day air strikes — which, predictably, Matthews uses against Kennedy here — was not tenable. In fact, these strikes were contingent upon the establishment of a beachhead, something that did not happen. (Peter Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified, pgs 127-28)
But as Kirkpatrick pointed out, this question about the D-Day air strikes is really a distraction from the real point. He wrote, “It is essential to keep in mind that the invasion was doomed in advance, that an initially successful landing by 1, 500 men would eventually have been crushed by Castro’s combined military resources strengthened by Soviet bloc supplied military personnel.” (ibid p. 41) Kirkpatrick goes on to estimate the combined size of all of Castro’s forces at over 200, 000 men, plus Soviet armor, tanks, mortar and cannon.
So the question then becomes, did the CIA actually think the invasion would succeed? Or did they have a hidden agenda? Many years later, scholar Lucien Vandenbroucke shed light on this key question in an important article for Diplomatic History (Fall, 1984), after discovering — among the papers of Allen Dulles at the Princeton Library — coffee-stained notes made by Dulles.
The notes were the remnants of an article the Director was going to write about the Bay of Pigs. In them, Dulles confessed that he and other CIA officers drew Kennedy into a plan they knew violated the President’s preannounced rules of engagement, namely that there was to be no direct intervention by American forces.
Although Dulles understood that this stricture doomed the plan, he went ahead with it anyway, deceiving Kennedy by telling him it would work on its own, as a similar CIA plan had succeeded in Guatemala in 1954. Dulles admitted in these notes that what they were really banking on was that the emerging “realities of the situation” would force Kennedy into violating his own pledge.
Or, as Dulles wrote, “We felt that when the chips were down — when the crisis rose to reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail.” How Matthews missed this crucial article by perhaps the disaster’s most important participant baffles me. Especially since it figures in Jim Douglass’s excellent and popular book JFK and the Unspeakable, which was published back in 2008.
Further, Matthews criticizes Kennedy for not knowing that the only escape from the beach was to the Escambray Mountains, 80 miles away, and through a very heavy swamp. (Matthews, p. 332)
What the author does not explain is that Dulles would not let Kennedy take the operational plans home overnight for study, even though he asked to do so. (Kornbluh, p. 53) In light of Dulles’s later confession, one has to wonder if the CIA Director understood that if a former military man had studied these plans at length and at home, he probably would have pulled the plug very early, thus depriving Dulles of his hidden agenda. By cutting out those two points, Matthews forecloses that conclusion for the reader.
But there is an even more surprising omission as far as Kennedy’s Cuba policy is concerned. After the conclusion of the Missile Crisis in October of 1962, Kennedy made a “no-invasion of the island” pledge to the Russians.
He then altered his Cuba policy in two significant ways. First, all operations against Cuba were to be made from outside the United States. And the operations were greatly cut back. In fact, as declassified documents reveal, in the last half of 1963, there were five raids total.
But more importantly, Kennedy decided to open a back-channel communication to Fidel Castro. This went on for 11 months, right up until Kennedy’s assassination. It was conducted for Kennedy by ABC reporter Lisa Howard, diplomat William Attwood, and French journalist Jean Daniel.
Against all odds, the talks were quite productive. The problem was that both the CIA and the Cuban exiles found out about them and tried to obstruct them. In fact, one of the exiles, Jose Miro Cardona stated that, “The struggle for Cuba was in the process of being liquidated.” (Douglass, p. 59)
In April 1963, an AP report from Miami stated that, “The dispute between the Cuban exile leaders and the Kennedy administration was symbolized here today by black crepe hung from the doors of exiles’ homes.” (ibid) But the talks continued. Yet, inexplicably, and unbeknownst to Kennedy, the CIA started another Castro assassination attempt. This time using disgruntled Cuban diplomat Rolando Cubela.
Negotiations continued and Castro expressed a willingness to bargain his most valuable chip: Russian influence in Cuba, even extending to Soviet personnel and military hardware. When Kennedy became aware of this, he sent diplomat Attwood to make contact with Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations.
Lechuga told Attwood that Castro liked Kennedy’s American University speech and he would be interested in arranging a visit by Attwood to Cuba — a significant milestone. In advance of this historic visit, Kennedy called in Daniel, the French journalist/intermediary.
What Kennedy told Daniel is somewhat stunning for that time. Kennedy said he understood the toll that colonization and imperialism had taken on Cuba. He even understood that America had been a part of that. He then said that he approved of many of Castro’s early declarations while in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. And he even agreed with Castro about the corruption of the Batista regime.
But now those sentiments were complicated by the Russian presence – and this had led to the Missile Crisis. Kennedy concluded with the fact that he thought the Russians now understood this, but he was not sure if Castro did. Kennedy then told Daniel to relay Castro’s answer when he returned.
On Nov. 19, 1963, when Castro got this message, he was overjoyed. He even suggested that Che Guevara be left out of these talks since he was opposed to them. And he also suggested that Attwood fly into Cuba through Mexico.
Castro said that “Suddenly, a president arrives on the scene who tries to support the interest of another class.” He added that Kennedy would now go down in history as the greatest president since Lincoln.
Three days later, Castro and Daniel got the news that Kennedy was dead. Castro was grief stricken. He repeated three times, “This is bad news.” He then declared, “Everything is changed. Everything is going to change.” (Douglass, pgs. 85-90)
And it did. By Dec. 17, it was clear to Attwood that President Johnson had no interest in continuing the talks. Attwood later wrote, “There is no doubt in my mind. If there had been no assassination we probably would have moved into negotiations leading toward normalization of relations with Cuba.” (Ibid, p. 177) An historic diplomatic opportunity had been shunted aside.
Now, this is as close as any president has come in over 50 years of achieving a détente with Cuba. That takes in 11 presidential administrations. If you can believe it – and by now you will not be surprised – Matthews’s book contains not one sentence about this startling moment of Kennedy’s presidency and its reversal by Johnson. It’s kind of easy to make heroism “elusive” if you don’t tell the reader about it.
By now, you also will not be surprised to learn that the author does not mention another landmark move by Kennedy made around this time. That is the signing of National Security Action Memorandum 263 in October of 1963.
This ordered the evacuation of all American advisers from Vietnam to begin in December 1963 and to be completed by the end of 1965. For as Kennedy told his friend Larry Newman, “I’m going to get those guys out because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war that it’s impossible to win.” (Ibid, . 189)
In fact, the move towards this decision had begun in April and May of 1962. As John Newman noted in his milestone book, just five months after facing down a debate over troops versus advisers in Vietnam, Kennedy had deftly turned that debate to reducing the number of advisers. He did this by sending Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith to Saigon, knowing he would return with a negative report on American involvement, which he did. (Newman pgs. 236-37)
This was then turned over to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Kennedy’s wishes were then relayed to the in-country team by McNamara in May 1962 at a meeting in Hawaii. There, McNamara made clear to the military that the American mission was not to assume responsibility for the war, but to train the South Vietnamese to fight the war themselves.
McNamara wanted a plan submitted to him with that end in mind. The reduction of American personnel should be achieved and he wanted this plan presented at the next such meeting in May of 1963. (Newman, p. 254) As Douglass notes, the plan was so presented to McNamara then. But he wanted it speeded up to make sure the forces would be out in 1965. (Douglass, p. 126)
The next step in the withdrawal plan was the Taylor-McNamara Report of Oct. 2, 1963. Although it has those two names on it – and the two men had just returned from Vietnam – it was not written by either man. The report was already awaiting them on their arrival. It was written by another military man, Victor Krulak, who had been supervised by President Kennedy. (Newman, p. 401)
The idea was that the report would present a rather rosy view of military conflict in Vietnam. And that positive assessment would provide the pretext for the now announced – through NSAM 263 – American withdrawal.
As John Newman notes, Kennedy essentially steamrollered his advisers to sign on to the policy and then sent McNamara out to announce the withdrawal plan to the press. His last-second instructions to the Secretary were, “And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots too.” (Newman p. 407)
Not one step in this chain of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan is dealt with by Matthews. Quoting Ted Sorenson, he concludes that we cannot be certain what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam. (Matthews, p. 394)
Well, if you leave out all the above, ignore numerous declassified documents — which convinced even the New York Times that Kennedy had a plan to withdraw — and if you do not reference any of the new books on the subject, then yes, you can then cherry-pick a quote from an old man who was not in the midst of the maneuvering.
And you can then use that to come to a conclusion that does not at all coincide with the voluminously adduced record. In fact, it runs counter to it.
Summing Up Kennedy
What Matthews does do in these closing pages about Kennedy and Vietnam is another example of his agenda. He decides to concentrate on the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem.
Matthews introduces this section by saying that Kennedy could not risk being the president who lost South Vietnam. If he did, he would be in the same position Harry Truman was when he “lost” China.
By eliminating all the details of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan, Matthews can ignore the fact that this is just what Kennedy was prepared to do: lose South Vietnam. And he also ignores that this parallels his actions in the Bay of Pigs. There, he was not willing to use direct American power in the previously colonized Third World. He chose defeat.
As outlined above, the same standard applied in Vietnam. Kennedy was willing to commit advisers, for a period of time. He was willing to aid South Vietnam, but not to fight the war for them directly.
Secondly, Kennedy understood that losing South Vietnam was not in any way equivalent to losing China. Here, Matthews makes Kennedy sound like LBJ, who was obsessed with that idea. And this is one of the reasons that Johnson did what Kennedy would never have done: commit American combat troops to fight the war for South Vietnam.
Matthews then writes that the problem was President Diem. This is a very short-sighted and narrow view. The actual problem was that the U.S. should have never been there. But if Matthews admitted that, then he would have had to lay the blame where it belonged: at the feet of the Dulles brothers and President Eisenhower.
Instead, Matthews says Kennedy appointed Henry Cabot Lodge to be the new ambassador to Saigon because Lodge had no sentimental feelings toward Diem and he could make the crisis there a bipartisan one. As do many of the problems we have today in understanding Vietnam, this error about Lodge’s appointment began with David Halberstam’s rather obsolete book The Best and the Brightest.
Kennedy’s actual choice for the appointment to Saigon was Gullion. This was objected to by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who wanted Lodge. (Douglass, p. 152)
Matthews then writes that Kennedy approved the Aug. 24, 1963, cable to Lodge authorizing the approval of a coup by the military against Diem. (Matthews, p. 387) Technically, this is true. But in all practical terms it is not. For, that weekend, while out of town, Kennedy had instructed State Department assistant Michael Forrestal that the cable had to be cleared in advance through proper channels. This included CIA Director John McCone. (Newman, p. 347)
Kennedy very likely said this because he knew that McCone favored Diem, and therefore would not approve the cable. Kennedy was then deceived by the cabal in the State Department — led by Averell Harriman — who wanted to get rid of Diem. This group claimed the cable had been properly cleared. It had not been, a deception that caused the cable to be sent. (ibid, p. 348)
When Kennedy returned to Washington and learned what had happened, he was enraged: “This shit has got to stop!” (Douglass, p. 164) Forrestal, who was one of the plotters, offered to resign. Kennedy snapped at him, “You’re not worth firing. You owe me something.” (ibid, p. 165)
But the problem was that Lodge was part of this secret plan. Therefore, he had shown the cable to the opposing military faction that Sunday night, before Kennedy got back. (Newman p. 350) And Lodge revised part of the cable. The original, the one read to Kennedy over the phone, said that Lodge should approach Diem first. He should ask him forcefully to remove his brother Nhu as the chief of security forces. Lodge did not do this. He instead went straight to the opposing generals. (ibid) The coup was now on.
My review could go on and on. Matthews’s book is essentially a cut-and-paste job. And it is a cut-and-paste job with a not very well disguised agenda, the one I described above: to paint Kennedy as a classic Cold Warrior. Which as the reader can see, he was not.
Biography is one of the most difficult literary categories to do well in. And when one writes a biography of a political figure who was controversial and unconventional, then the job becomes that much harder.
The task becomes impossible to do well if one is not willing to properly sketch in what came before him and what came after. Again, this is another grievous fault in Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. Matthews tries to paint the Cold War in purely ideological terms. This is not accurate.
The battle for the Third World was not just fought over communist ideology. Belgium did not want to hang on to Congo simply because the Belgians thought Lumumba was a communist, for he was not. They wanted to hang on because Congo was immensely wealthy in valuable minerals and natural resources.
The Dutch did not want to hang on to Indonesia after World War II to keep it from the Soviet Union. They wanted to exploit its vast repository of oil, rubber and gold.
The Dulles brothers represented these kinds of interests when John Foster was managing partner and Allen was senior partner at the giant corporate law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Therefore, when they came to power under Eisenhower, they were eager to extend that representation to corporate clients as part of their public service.
So under Allen Dulles, the CIA got into both the assassination business and the coup d’état business. In short order, they represented the Anglo/American oil interests versus Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. They represented United Fruit against Guatemala’s nationalist President Jacobo Arbenz.
The brothers then tried to overthrow Indonesia’s President Sukarno in 1958. After John Foster’s death in 1959, Eisenhower and Allen Dulles plotted to overthrow Castro and assassinate Lumumba.
This is the backdrop into which Kennedy, with his nationalistic and anti-imperialist views, ascended in 1961. And in that year he tried to turn around this Dulles-Eisenhower policy in Congo, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam. And this is the real story that Matthews finds so elusive. Because he does not want to deal with it.
Professor Donald Gibson began his fine book Battling Wall Street with the various images the casual reader is presented of the figure of John Kennedy. He writes that not all of them can be accurate. If so, Kennedy would be a chameleon of the stature of Lon Chaney. But if one digs, and digs hard enough, a consistent baseline does emerge. And the historian can then begin his job from there.
As we have seen, Chris Matthews never found that baseline. In fact, the evidence I adduce here says he never wanted to find it. But other authors have.
Cable TV hosts are not cut out to be good biographers or historians. They simply don’t have the vision or the attention for detail that those two disciplines need in order to be of value. And they have an investment in not having those qualities. That way they keep up the ersatz liberal/conservative and Democrat/Republican debates.
In that light, a man as complex, unique and unconventional as John Kennedy was not suitable for the miniscule talents of Chris Matthews, whose stab at explaining John Kennedy tells us more about Matthews than it does John Kennedy or the United States. And that is about the worst thing one can say about a biography.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era.