by Sabina Clarke
Ed. note: As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963), there are still questions about that epic event as to whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin and whether he was an assassin at all. Following is the first of a two-part series by Chestnut Hill freelance writer Sabina Clarke:
“Brothers…The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” a 2007 New York Times bestseller by journalist David Talbot on Kennedy’s “beleaguered and heroic presidency” preserves a slice of history that otherwise might have been lost to us forever. Based on extensive research, recently declassified government documents and interviews with Kennedy administration insiders, Talbot weaves a gripping narrative.
“Brothers…” (Free Press/A Division of Simon & Schuster, paperback edition $15) exposes the shocking truths about the CIA and the military industrial complex that were bent on prolonging the Cold War. And he shines a light on the shadow government that JFK and his Attorney General Robert Kennedy struggled with from the day JFK took office until the day he died.
In remarkable behind closed door scenes, Talbot captures the isolation and alienation felt by both JFK and Bobby and their frustration with the military and intelligence elites and their determination to change the way Washington worked. And he unearths new evidence which proves that JFK, on several occasions, rescued the country from the brink of nuclear war with Russia.
Offering what he calls a “revisionist history” of JFK’s presidency that he hopes will become mainstream, Talbot makes a convincing case. “Conventional history,” he says, “sees JFK as a Cold War hawk, when essentially both JFK and Bobby were intent on unplugging the country from the permanent war mentality that still prevails in Washington today.”
In fact JFK and his inner circle — Arthur Schlesinger, Theodore Sorenson, Kenny O’Donnell and Robert McNamara — were totally estranged from their own national security bureaucracy. So estranged did JFK become from his military and intelligence advisers that he frequently discussed with aides the possibility of a coup.
Talbot credits Robert McNamara, JFK’s former Secretary of Defense, with setting the record straight as far as Kennedy’s commitment to pull out of Vietnam. He says, “The country owes McNamara an enormous debt for speaking out about the Kennedy presidency and preserving JFK’s legacy as a warrior for peace.”
“Brothers” opens on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when Bobby Kennedy gets a cold, impersonal phone call from FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover informing him that his brother has been murdered in Dallas. Bobby immediately suspects that his brother is the victim of a powerful conspiracy.
Written with an historian’s eye and a journalist’s soul, “Brothers…” is powerful drama and superb journalism — and the closest you’ll get to the pulse of the Kennedy presidency.
SC: Why were you inspired to write this book?
DT: Two major reasons, I worked as a campaign volunteer for Bobby Kennedy when I was 16. I remember the night when he was killed. I was an angry kid in military prep school in Los Angeles when the Vietnam War was raging. I knew kids from my school that had been sent there. It seemed like such a colossal waste, and suddenly there was this young charismatic figure. When Bobby came along, I knew he had a chance. I was never taken with Eugene McCarthy.”
SC: How did Bobby Kennedy’s death affect you?
DT: I was outraged. This was the third time. I was 12 years old when JFK was killed, and I remember thinking that the world didn’t seem right. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. Then after Bobby was assassinated, I wondered what kind of world was this that I was growing up in. I needed to understand what had gone wrong with America.
SC: What was your impression of Robert McNamara? Was he an opportunist, a company man or …
DT: All of the above. McNamara is a humanitarian, a company man and a robot. He is one of the strangest public figures in my lifetime and one of the strangest I’ve ever interviewed. I have always been interested in McNamara. I’ve known McNamara was a strange fish for quite a while. In the 1980s during the nuclear freeze movement, I was an editor at Mother Jones magazine. I remember when some of the Vietnam hawks like McNamara and McGeorge Bundy came out and surprised people by supporting the nuclear freeze. Suddenly they seemed to be peaceniks. During that time, I interviewed McNamara’s son, Craig McNamara, who was a hippy left-wing organic farmer in California. He became my avenue to his father. I thought that any father who could produce a son as sweet and thoughtful and interesting as Craig, something is going on in that family. Craig told me how his family was literally torn apart by the Vietnam War. The McNamaras are a sharp contrast to the Bush administration that seems to have no conscience at all. The Cheneys and Rumsfelds are completely one-dimensional. There is something about McNamara, despite the horrific things that he did as Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson, that did get to him. There was a human heart that beat inside this otherwise robotic man. And as any writer will tell you, that is the grit for a great character.
SC: You stated in your book that McNamara set the record straight on JFK and his intent to pull out of Vietnam.
DT: Absolutely. We owe him an enormous debt, all historians and the country as a whole. Kennedy used that rhetoric to get elected, yet he was rapidly changing even as he was elected. By the end of his administration, he was determined not to get bogged down by Vietnam. The Kennedy administration was a peace administration; it was very radical for its day, given the kind of Cold War fog enveloping the country at the time.
SC: There are so many revelations in this book. It gave me a renewed appreciation for JFK’s presidency.
DT: For me what clearly came into focus was his faith in confronting the implacable Cold War apparatus. He was willing to rethink the Cold War and get the country out of it before the world blew up.
– Part Two Next Week