JFK’s Corporatist and Imperialist Presidency

Part 4: The Drug War, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, and Space

Part One of this series discussed the intricacies JFK’s presidential cabinet and a brief background of JFK. Then, Part Two addressed how the Kennedy Administration, while not being liked by the whole business community, pushed forward proposals that benefited international capital such as GATT and the Kennedy Tax Cuts. Part Three talked about how JFK’s anti-communist view of the world influenced his support for right-wing dictators, allowing assassinations and much more. The final installment of this series, Part Four, will conclude by talking about how JFK dealt with social issues such as civil rights, civil liberties and much more.

In the winter of 1983, feminist and socialist organizer Clara Fraser wrote about the real nature of the Kennedys:

The Kennedy dynasty was hardly the epitome of glamour, charm, wit, wisdom, compassion, intellectual acumen, and fine art appreciation. The Kennedy clan was an intrinsic sector of America’s royalists, aristocrats in much more than demeanor and style. They were economic robber barons. They hobnobbed with the most unsavory reactionaries. They were virulently antilabor; Bobby almost destroyed the Teamsters. Their racism provoked rivers of blood in the South. Their view of women was demeaning and exploitative. Their voracious yen to forge a global empire for the almighty dollar found us jolted and revolted at every turn.

JFK did have some ‘liberal humanist’ thoughts as part of the ‘New Frontier’.  He appointed a unionist, Arthur Goldberg, as his first Secretary of Labor,  and it was Goldberg who pushed the steel industry into action and also helped resolve a New York harbor tugboat strike and a Metropolitan opera/orchestra dispute. However, as G. William Domhoff writes, “little attention was given to Social Security during the tumultuous Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but the program was significantly improved during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.”

At the same time, while it is true that JFK supported Medicare during his presidency, he supported a plan that was voluntary in nature, not one that was compulsory, which was rejected by Congress.  This is connected to what the Tax Foundation wrote about Kennedy Tax Cuts: “…when the Kennedy tax cuts were enacted, defense spending constituted a whopping 42.1 percent of the federal budget…President Kennedy passed his tax cuts as he ran a deficit equaling 1 percent of national income,” and is linked to his broader domestic policy.

On the home front, Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General “unleashed an unprecedented war on organized crime” which was against numerous union leaders, straining “the Democratic party’s relationship with organized labor.” On the other hand, JFK was less engaged in civil rights than one expects, but he “created the Peace Corps, continued the “space race” which put a man on the moon in 1969” and advocated on other liberal causes while also pushing tax cuts for the rich as noted by the Mary Ferrell Foundation.

At the same time, JFK continued the government offenses against illegal drugs which had started in 1906 and continued from Eisenhower’s signing of an anti-pot act in 1956. In 1961, there was the signing of a convention, that codified worldwide drug control measures, the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, which “codified all existing multilateral treaties on drug control and extended the existing control systems to include the cultivation of plants that were grown as the raw material of narcotic drugs.” Importantly this “was a major step in other efforts to crackdown on the drug problem worldwide and later in the United States,” which would later be expanded to include the Controlled Substances Act.

At the time, JFK’s space policy was interlaced with anti-communism. In 1961, he felt compelled to counter the launching of a Soviet “cosmonaut into space…[by] launch[ing] an American into space [who was named] former Navy pilot Alan Sheppard.” At the same time, Gil Scott-Heron’s criticism of the Space Race is still very valid, as it “anchored the flight into the heavens, tethering it to the persistence of racial inequality, and pulling it out of the abstract, universal realm in which we like to place our technical achievements” and saying it was a deep cost to put “whitey on the moon.” Howard Zinn wrote that after “John F. Kennedy presented his budget to the nation after his first year in office…all seemed secure. Nothing had to be done for blacks. Nothing had to be done to change the economic structure. An aggressive foreign policy could continue. The country seemed under control. And then, in the 1960s, came a series of explosive rebellions in every area of American life, which showed that all the system’s estimates of security and success were wrong.” 1

This leads to the belief  by some that Kennedy was a bastion for civil rights but this is very deceptive. Let’s not forget the words that he said in a speech in Seattle in 1960:  “In a world of danger and trial, peace is our deepest aspiration…it is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war.” From this, if one puts war into a broader context, it makes sense why he kept authoritarian and anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover in power while appointing a Republican, John McCone, who had a background in engineering, as the Director of Central Intelligence.  McCone led the CIA during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yes, Allen Dulles, OSS veteran and architect of the government overthrow of democratically-elected nationalist Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, among other members, were removed from power because of the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs which was part of a broader CIA plan called Operation 40. But as noted in part 3, the Kennedys wanted to overthrow Castro with their terrorist campaign called Operation Mongoose conducted by the CIA.  Still, McCone had his ties to big business, and was a hard anti-communist and cold warrior who was friends with Allen Dulles. LA Times said on his death in 1991 that he “advocated expansion of international research on peaceful uses of atomic energy,” saved face for the CIA after the Bay of Pigs, recommended military force to remove the missiles from Cuba in 1962 and was “born into a wealthy manufacturing family in San Francisco…[was] executive vice president and director of the merged Consolidated Steel Corp…[and] found[ed] his own company with Stephen Bechtel, Bechtel-McCone Corp.”

Spartacus Educational added that not only did McCone help found Bechtel, he was also involved in war production during WWII with his company Bechtel-McCone Corporation having two scams (at least) to profiteer off war contracts.  By the end of the war he was one of the biggest investors in shipping in the world.  He helped build the atom bomb, and even under the Truman Administration as Deputy to the Secretary of Defense he “gave contracts to Standard Oil and Kaiser Aluminum, two companies in which he had financial connections,” and he strongly opposed negotiations with Fidel Castro while staying in power until 1965.

That’s not all. On another note, while “the United States government had signed more than four hundred treaties with Indians and violated every single one…in the early sixties, under President Kennedy, the United States ignored the treaty [with the Seneca] and built a dam on this land, flooding most of the Seneca reservation.” 2 As for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Noam Chomsky says that he wouldn’t “be in the least surprised if there in fact was a real conspiracy behind that…probably a high-level conspiracy…[a] conspiracy theory is perfectly plausible.” But then on Kennedy he says “nobody’s even come up with a plausible reason” for a conspiracy involving his assassination.

Chomsky goes on to say that while “the Kennedy administration was in many ways similar to the Reagan administration–in policy and programs–but they did do one smart thing that was different: they sort of buttered up the intellectual class, as compared to the Reaganites, who treated them with contempt” and “Kennedy’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was not pretty.” 3  The major civil rights advocate and social activist, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was strongly opposed including by the “Kennedy administration…[which] really disliked him, [as] they tried in to block him in every possible way” and even the “Civil Rights Movement became powerful enough that they had to pretend they liked him, so there was a sort of period of popularity for King when he was seen to be focusing on extremely narrow issues…as soon as he turned to broader issues…he…was actively opposed.” 4

This expanded outside MLK to the broader movement. As Steven Strauss wrote, the Kennedy Brothers were not “responsible for earlier successes of the movement” with even President John Kennedy urging “leaders to call off the 1963 march, as his brother Robert did with the Freedom Rides into the segregated South [as] both said that social protest would arouse the right wing to violence…they urged people to stay home and trust the Democrats.” As Zinn wrote, there was something deeper: when “black civil rights leaders planned a huge march on Washington…President Kennedy and other national leaders…turned…friendly…John Lewis, a young Alabama-boen SNCC leader…tried to introduce a stronger note of outrage at the meeting, who insisted he omit certain sentences critical of the national administration and urging militant action…Kennedy met with the civil rights leaders…[which] did persuade [them]…that they should not lay siege on Capitol Hill.” 5

In addition, Kennedy acted very cautious and didn’t even attempt to prevent violence against the Freedom Riders. In fact, Bobby Kennedy “agreed to the Freedom Riders’ being arrested in Jackson in return for Mississippi police protection against possible mob violence.”6

Guerry Hodderson added to this, noting that the march was a “creation of Black trade unionists…[but] none of the official speakers at the March on Washington were women.”  Still the “the March on Washington was not a love-in for the Kennedy administration [because] the Kennedy brothers had a lousy record on civil rights. Kennedy only supported sit-ins if they were “peaceful and legal.”…President Kennedy had no plans to put before congress civil rights legislation…Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had appointed a corporate, anti-trust lawyer, [Burke Marshall], to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.”

The dislike of the civil rights movement proceeded 1963. Bobby Kennedy already had authorized FBI Chief Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King’s phone conversations because of his supposed connection to communists. At the law day exercises of the University Of Georgia Law School in May 1961, he told students: “We…must avoid another Little Rock…It is not only that such incidents do incalculable harm to the children,…seriously undermine respect for law and order, and cause serious economic and moral damage. Such incidents hurt our country in the eyes of the world.” Additionally, when JFK was running for office, he hinted that if the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education had been enforced, Eisenhower “might have avoided the trouble at Little Rock. Kennedy suggested, however, that if force had indeed been necessary in Little Rock, Eisenhower should have used federal marshals instead of troops” and while “Kennedy endorsed the sit-ins…[they were] meant only for those that were “peaceful and legal.”7

In addition, while preoccupied with trying to overthrow the government of Cuba which threatened international capital, “the Kennedy administration at first paid little attention to the [Freedom] rides,” ignoring letters for federal help and taking a very moderate position which resulted in states taking actions into their own hands to ‘maintain order.’ 8  Still, the Kennedy administration took a stand that it would “not permit mob action in a racial matter” but they didn’t stand up for activists since “the nonmilitary option also greatly appealed to the Kennedy administration”.  In 1962, however, JFK “signed a proclamation declaring that the governor of Mississippi and other officers and persons in that state were “willfully opposing and obstructing the enforcement” of federal court orders” which resulted in calling of all units and members of the Mississippi Army and Air National Guards into federal service for an indefinite period. 9

Where do we go from here?

In this deep analysis, it should be clear that JFK is not a savior, a hero for the left or someone to be admired, but rather someone who should be critiqued. This critique should not only extend to JFK, but to other presidents as well, such as Obama, Bush II, Clinton, and Reagan, none of whom should be held up as saviors or models of just policy.

There is not even a reason to discuss ridiculous conspiracies that involve his assassination, but rather it is time to look for the truth. The facts, as I have laid out, have shown that while he pursued some liberal policies, JFK was an imperialist, an interventionist, and a corporatist. Most importantly, he was a proto-Reagan, but was milder in some parts of his policy. In the end, we as humans must reject the idea that “in times of crisis we must look to someone to save us…and that between occasional crises everything is all right, and it is sufficient for us to be restored to that normal state” since it surrenders “our own strength, demeaning our own ability, obliterating our own selves” and rebel, recognizing that “the more of the 99 percent…see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual.”10

  1. Zinn, Howard. Chapter 16: A People’s War? A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present.  (New ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print). []
  2. Zinn, Howard. Chapter 19: Surprises. A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present.  (New ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print). []
  3. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel), New York: The New Press, 2002 []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Zinn, Howard. Chapter 17: “Or Does It Explode?” A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present.  (New ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print). []
  6. Zinn: Ibid 1 []
  7. A report by Paul J. Scheips titled The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1945-1992 for the Center of Military History of the United States Army in 2012. This was sent to me thanks to one of my twitter followers and friends on something unrelated, but I thought I might use it. []
  8. Scheips: Ibid 1 []
  9. Scheips: Ibid 2 []
  10. Zinn, Howard. Chapter 24: The Coming Revolt of the Guards. A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present.  (New ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print). []

Burkely Hermann is an activist who wants to change the world for the better by imagining alternatives to the status quo of neoliberal global capitalism. In order to illuminate these alternatives and outline the status quo, he runs numerous online blogs, writes numerous articles, and uses his tech savvy skills to fight for social justice. Read other articles by Burkely.