Against False Conflation: JFK, MLK, and the Triple Evils

Photo by Helena | CC BY 2.0

Two Murders

I do not pretend to know the full stories behind the assassinations or executions of either John F. Kennedy (JFK) or Martin Luther King, Jr., the latter killed in Memphis, Tennessee, exactly 50 years ago today.  Were one or both them killed by lone gunmen?  By the CIA? The FBI? Organized crime? The U.S. military? Some combination of these?

There are good reasons to doubt the official stories and suspect “deep state” conspiracies in both cases. But don’t ask me for any definitive answers. I don’t have any and I doubt I ever will. (Don’t ask me about Bobby Kennedy either).

I can, however, definitively mark as absurd the messages I periodically get from purportedly left people telling me to see the killing of JFK in the same light as the murder of Dr. King—as if both iconic 1960s figures were great peoples’ leaders fighting heroically for racial equality, social justice and peace.

JFK Atop the Triple Evils

That, it can be definitively said, is nonsense. The super-wealthy corporate-liberal and proto-neoliberal JFK spent the lion’s share of his presidency on the wrong side of each of what King called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic injustice (capitalism) and militarism. Kennedy is a false progressive idol of the highest order, something you won’t learn about on MSNBC (“MSDNC”), where Democratic Party commentator Chris Matthews lives in a seemingly permanent state of Kennedy family worship.

Let’s start with the second of King’s “triple evils”—class rule. “The role played by twentieth-century Presidents,” political scientist Bruce Miroff noted 42 years ago, “has been characteristically conservative. ‘Liberal’ as well as ‘conservative’ Presidents … have bent their strongest efforts, not to alter, but to preserve America’s dominant institutions. Whatever their professed sympathies, their actions have served, not to redistribute wealth and power, but to perpetuate existing inequalities … [serving as] central figures in the maintenance of established [hierarchical] socioeconomic arrangements.”

As Miroff demonstrated in his forgotten 1976 classic “Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy,” JFK was no exception to the rule. More than a decade before neoliberal Democrats emerged to explicitly steer the Democratic Party further to the corporate right, JFK’s superficially declared sympathies for the poor and working-class took a back seat in his White House to “the real determinants of policy: political calculation and economic doctrine.”

As Miroff explained, political cunning “led Kennedy to appease the corporate giants and their allies in government.” Economic doctrine “told him that the key to the expansion and health of the economy was the health and expansion of those same corporate giants. The architects of Kennedy’s ‘New Economics’ liked to portray it as the technically sophisticated and politically neutral management of a modern industrial economy. It is more accurately portrayed as a pragmatic liberalism in the service of corporate capitalism.”

The regressive nature of JFK’s “New Economics” was cloaked by his recurrent, much-publicized spats with certain members of the business community (the executives of U.S. Steel above all), his repeated statements of concern for labor and the poor, and his claim to advance a purely “technical” and “pragmatic” economic agenda that elevated “practical management” and administrative expertise above the “grand warfare of ideologies.”

JFK inhabited the same centrist, cautious, cunning and “pragmatic” place on the first of King’s “triple evils”—racism. Kennedy might have found it politically useful to intervene on King’s behalf during the latter’s jailing in the election year of 1960 and, later, to wrap himself in the aura of racial progress and equality by offering some partial and belated federal protections to the civil rights movement (CRM). But the Kennedy administration worked hard to divide and dilute the CRM, seeking to channel it into staid and narrow legal and electoral grooves. The JFK White House gave some elementary shelter to activists and Southern blacks only when the president and his practically co-presidential brother and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy calculated that rabid white Southern reaction was undermining their ability to sell the United States as a model of enlightened “democracy” in its Cold War contest with the Soviet Union for the allegiances of the nonwhite Third World.

Subsequent elitist “Mississippi Burning” revisionism notwithstanding, the Kennedy administration was no great friend of the struggle for black equality. Its response to the black freedom movement was dominated by the tension between two competing political calculations: (1) the threat of politically alienating white Americans, above all traditionally Democratic and white Southerners, and (2) the risk of losing Third World hearts and minds in the supposed U.S. struggle to advance “freedom and democracy.” Kennedy and his brother bent over backward to accommodate Southern racists, leaving them feeling free to kill and maim civil rights activists in the deep South. When the federal Civil Rights Commission announced that it would investigate racist violence in Mississippi, the younger Kennedy denounced the commission as being like the House Un-American Activities Committee “investigating Communism.” When NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot down in his own driveway, Bobby Kennedy said that it was not the federal government’s job to protect black activists. It was up the state of Mississippi.

The real experience and struggles of black Americans were not an especially relevant concern to the Kennedys. When Southern racist authorities managed to defeat the CRM without politically problematic and embarrassing violence (as in Albany, Ga., in 1962), the Kennedy administration was happy to withhold protection from King and his fellow activists. When racist police commissioner Bull Connor attacked black protesters in Birmingham, Ala., with high-pressure water hoses, dogs and batons in May 1963, JFK complained that the demonstrations were making the U.S. “look bad in the world” and Bobby Kennedy claimed that 90 percent of the protesters had no idea why they were in the streets. Along the way, Kennedy appointed at least five segregationists to the federal judiciary, turning to the racist Mississippi senator, James Eastland, for advice on appointments. The Kennedy brothers were inordinately obsessed with alleged Communist connections to King and the CRM. They approved racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s regular and relentless police state surveillance, smearing and infiltration of the movement.

This ugly Kennedy history would be less surprising to liberals, perhaps, if they would carefully read JFK’s bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1957 book “Profiles in Courage.” There, Kennedy foretold his coming weak civil rights record, purveying Southern white historical mythology by referring to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War as a “black nightmare … nourished by Federal bayonets.”

(For useful historical accounts of JFK’s less-than-progressive civil rights record, see Harvard Sitkoff’s 2008 book, “The Struggle for Black Equality”; David Garrow’s 2004 book, “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; and Kenneth O’Reilly’s 1995 book, “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton”).

Turning to King’s third evil, JFK’s foreign policy record was militantly imperial and militarist, contrary to subsequent liberal and left hagiographers’ weird determination to reinvent him as a man of the left. As Noam Chomsky noted in his 1993 study “Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture,” “One of the most significant legacies left by the [Kennedy] Administration was its 1962 decision to shift the mission of the [U.S.-funded, equipped, and trained] Latin American military from ‘hemispheric defense’ to ‘internal security’,” leading, in the words of Kennedy’s top Latin American counter-insurgency planner (Charles Maechling) to “direct [U.S.] complicity” in “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads. The shift to deadly internal repression was a natural corollary to Kennedy’s “export-promoting” Alliance for Progress “development program,” which benefited Latin American elites while drastically increasing Latin American unemployment.

When Kennedy was assassinated, the CIA and JFK’s advisers were working with his approval to overthrow a democratically elected government and install a fascist military dictatorship in Brazil. The plan was carried out months later. “Brazil,” Chomsky observed 11 years ago, “had a moderately populist-democratic government in the early 1960s. The Kennedy administration organized a military coup that imposed a neo-Nazi national security state that was the first of the plague that then spread throughout the continent to Chile, Argentina, Central America and then became one big massacre.”

In Cuba, where Washington’s Third World fascist allies had been overthrown and forced to flee after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led a popular socialist revolution in 1959, the Kennedy administration made repeated attempts to assassinate the nations’ leaders and launched an ongoing campaign of terror and sabotage. After the U.S.-run Bay of Pigs invasion operation that Kennedy inherited from Dwight Eisenhower failed spectacularly in its efforts to spark a rebellion against Castro in April 1961, Kennedy “asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy,” writes historian Piero Gleijeses, “to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare, and sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the ‘terrors of the earth’ on Fidel Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him.” This explicit terror campaign included the murder of 400 Cuban factory workers in early November 1962, less than two weeks after the Cuban missile crisis.

Kennedy understood the thoroughly conditional nature of “democracy” as a U.S. foreign policy objective when he remarked that while the U.S. would prefer democratic regimes abroad, it will choose “a [pro-American dictator] Trujillo” over “a [“anti-American” dictator] Castro” if those were the only choices. “It is necessary only to add,” Chomsky observed in 1991, that Kennedy’s “concept of ‘a Castro’ was very broad,” including anyone who challenged U.S. power and global capitalism.

Then there’s Vietnam. Kennedy “raised the level of [U.S.] attack [on Indochina] from international terrorism to outright aggression in 1961-62,” Chomsky said, justifying the use of U.S. airpower to napalm social revolutionaries, defoliate Vietnamese countrysides and slaughter innocent peasants with the false claims that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless [Soviet-Marxist] conspiracy” and that failure to stop “Communism” in Vietnam would open the gates to Soviet world domination. After the epic failure of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the erection of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, Kennedy told The New York Times’ James Reston in late 1961 that “[n]ow we have a problem in making our [anti-Communist Cold War] power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”

Would Kennedy, as some of his liberal and left fans like Oliver Stone and James K. Galbraith (son of JFK assistant John Kenneth Galbraith) claim, have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam had he not been assassinated in late November of 1963? (Stone even made a blockbuster movie to claim that the supposed peace advocate JFK was murdered by the CIA to permit U.S. escalation in Vietnam under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, portrayed as an agent of the defense industry and right-wing military officers.). This has been a topic of dispute between and among left and liberal historians and researchers, including Rick Perlstein, Galbraith, Stone and Chomsky. They dispute the significance and meaning of JFK’s apparent October 1963 “decision” and plan to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of 1965. The winners in the debate are Perlstein and Chomsky, who correctly observe that that Kennedy’s “withdrawal plan” was conditional on full U.S. victory over the Vietnamese revolution and independence movement. It would not have been carried out, given harsh realities on the ground. As Perlstein noted five years ago:

“[W]hether John F. Kennedy’s formal decision would be carried through in the interim between October 1963 and January 1966 was contingent on what happened in the future. One day this summer I issued a formal decision to go the beach. Then it rained. And so I did not go to the beach. … And as anyone who knows anything about the Vietnam War knows, the people funneling intelligence to the president were alarmingly adept (‘the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963’) at claiming the sun was shining when it actually was pouring down rain. In fact, when it came to America’s military prospects there, it was winter in Seattle just about all the time.”

JFK’s late-in-life public statements were consistent with Chomsky and Perlstein’s sense that the doomed young president had no intention of pulling back from his mass-murderous assault on Vietnam until U.S “victory” was attained. In Fort Worth, just hours before the assassination, for example, Kennedy said that “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” In the speech he would have delivered in Dallas, Kennedy was going to say that the U.S., in its role as “watchman on the walls of world freedom,” had to carry out duties that were “painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.” In repeated public statements in the summer and early fall of 1963, Kennedy left no doubt that for him, withdrawal without “victory” was unthinkable.

Even if Kennedy had survived and removed U.S. forces from Vietnam, this would have meant only that JFK had decided that U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped South Vietnamese troops and the U.S.-funded regime of South Vietnam were capable of defeating the Vietnamese revolution without the further engagement of U.S. troops—on the model, say, of the mass-murderous U.S.-backed Suharto government in Indonesia.

The most nauseating claim made by members of the liberal Jack Kennedy cult holds that JFK heroically saved humanity from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. I have shown in previous columns (see my essay “The Cuban Missile Crisis vs. the Korean Missile Crisis” from August 2017) that the truth is precisely the opposite. “In effect,” the British journalist Joseph Richardson noted five years ago in an article properly titled “JFK’s Lunatic Priorities During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” “Kennedy’s government was prepared to risk a nuclear conflagration to safeguard US prestige. [Kennedy’s] Secretary of State Dean Rusk jubilantly exclaimed after the first Soviet ships opted not to run the American blockade that ‘we’re eye ball to eye ball and I think the other fellow just blinked.’”

Had the Soviets not blinked, it is likely Rusk would not have been around to give his reaction.” But for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s determination to let humanity survive and the heroic intervention of a Soviet submarine commander named Vasili Arkhipov beneath the Western Atlantic in the early evening of Oct. 27, 1962, it seems likely that Kennedy’s reckless naval blockade and nuclear machismo would have set off World War III. At the same time, Kennedy set the stage for the Strangelovian “one minute to midnight” moment by dramatically escalating the international arms race and with his incursions into Cuba, which provoked Castro into seeking a Soviet nuclear shield against U.S. invasion.

Despite all this and more, JFK still maintains a strange reputation as an agent of peace and social justice among certain persistently deluded and bamboozled people of “the left.”  Last January, a self-described “anti-war peace environmentalist” wrote me to protest the “eras[ure] of” what she called “the real legacy of JFK … which was that he may have saved the world from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and he wanted PEACE.” She insisted that I read a Catholic Worker’s book that “proves that Kennedy was killed by the CIA and its military-industrial allies because he had decided to become a man of peace.” As the “Unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect noted in a sharp 2005 reflection on JFK’s undeserved progressive standing, “the search for enlightened bourgeois leadership [past and present] seems never-ending.”

MLK Against the Triple Evils

King, by contrast, really was a people’s champion – never more than in his final year. You wouldn’t know this from the neo-McCarthyite, and whitewashed narrative of King that is purveyed across the nation every year, especially during and around the national holiday that bears his name.  This domesticated, bourgeois airbrushing portrays King as a mild liberal reformist who wanted little more than a few basic civil rights adjustments in a supposedly good and decent American System – a loyal supplicant who was grateful to the nation’s leaders for finally making noble alterations.

This official Orwellian commemoration never says anything about the Dr. King who studied Marx sympathetically at a young age and who said in his last years that “if we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”  It deletes the King who wrote that “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters was the need for a radical social revolution. It deletes the King who went on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in late 1967 to reflect on how little the Black freedom struggle had attained beyond some fractional changes in the South. He deplored “the arresting of the limited forward progress” Blacks and their allies had attained “by [a] white resistance [that] revealed the latent racism that was [still] deeply rooted in U.S. society.”

“As elation and expectations died,” King explained on the CBC, “Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade, little has been done for Northern ghettoes. Al the legislation was to remedy Southern conditions – and even these were only partially improved.”

Worse than merely limited, King felt, the gains won by Black Americans during what he considered just the “first phase” of their freedom struggle (1955-1965) were dangerous in that they “brought whites a sense of completion” – a preposterous impression that the so-called “Negro problem” had been solved and that there was therefore no more basis or justification for further black activism. “When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend to the second rung of the ladder,” King noted, “a firm resistance from the white community developed…In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a singing white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably, it was outright resistance.”

Explaining to his CBC listeners the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King made no apologies for Black violence. He blamed “the white power structure…still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact” for the disturbances. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change,” which” produc[ed] chaos” by telling Blacks (whose expectations for substantive change had been aroused) “that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor.”

King also blamed the riots in part on Washington’s imperialist and mass-murderous war on Vietnam – the war that JFK initiated and had no intention of pulling back from short of U.S. “victory.” Along with the misery it inflicted on Indochina, King said, the United States’ savage military aggression against Southeast Asia stole resources from Lyndon Johnson’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” It sent poor Blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems.

Black Americans and others sensed what King called “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit,” King said on the CBC, adding that he “could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Racial hypocrisy aside, King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense [here he might better have said “military empire”] than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

Did the rioters disrespect the law, as their liberal and conservative critics alike charged? Yes, King said, but added that the rioters’ transgressions were “derivative crimes…born of the greater crimes of the…policy-makers of the white society,” who “created discrimination…created slums [and] perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty… [T]he white man,” King elaborated, “does not abide by law in the ghetto. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provision of public services. The slums are a handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.”

Did the rioters engage in violence? Yes, King said, but noted that their aggression was “to a startling degree…focused against property rather than against people.” He observed that “property represents the white power structure, which [the rioters] were [quite understandably] attacking and trying to destroy.” Against those who held property “sacred,” King argued that “Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround with rights and respect, it has no personal being.”

What to do? King advanced radical changes that went against the grain of the nation’s corporate state, reflecting his agreement with New Left militants that “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in man or faulty operations.”  King advocated an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs for all or a guaranteed national income “at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances.” He also called for the “demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them.”

His proposals, he said, aimed for more than racial justice alone. Seeking to abolish poverty for all, including poor whites, he felt that “the Negro revolt” was properly challenging each of what he called “the interrelated triple evils” of racism, economic injustice/poverty (capitalism) and war (militarism and imperialism). The Black struggle had thankfully “evolve[ed] into more than a quest for [racial] desegregation and equality,” King said.  It had become “a challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology” but had failed to “create justice.”

“If humanism is locked outside the [capitalist] system,” King said on CBC five months before his assassination (or execution), “Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism and a far greater struggle for liberation will unfold. The United States is substantially challenged to demonstrate that it can abolish not only the evils of racism but the scourge of poverty and the horrors of war….”

There should be no doubt that King meant capitalism when he referred to “the system” and its “inner core of despotism.” This is clear from the best scholarship on King, including David Garrow’s epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council(HarperCollins, 1986)

No careful listener to King’s CBC talks could have missed the radicalism of his vision and tactics. “The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King said. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” he added.

Such a revolution would require “more than a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches” King proclaimed. “There must,” he added, “be a force that interrupts [that society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.”

“The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth,” King added for good measure. “The storm will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth…” The “massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system” that King advocated was “international in scope,” reflecting the fact that “the poor countries are poor primarily because [rich Western nations] have exploited them through political or economic colonialism. Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism.”

King was a democratic socialist mass-disobedience-advocating and anti-imperialist world revolution advocate.  The guardians of national memory don’t want you to know about that when they purvey the official, doctrinally imposed memory of King as an at most liberal and milquetoast reformer. (In a similar vein, our ideological overlords don’t want us to know that Albert Einstein [Time magazine’s  “Person of the 20th Century”] wrote a brilliant essay making the case for socialism in the first issue of venerable U.S.-Marxist magazine Monthly Review  – or that Helen Keller was a fan of the Russian Revolution.)

The threat posed to the official bourgeois memory by King’s CBC lectures – and by much more that King said and wrote in the last three years of his life – is not just that they show an officially iconic gradualist reformer to have been a democratic socialist opponent of the profits system and its empire. It is also about how clearly King analyzed the incomplete and unfinished nature of the nation’s progress against racial and class injustice, around which all forward developments pretty much ceased in the 1970s, thanks to a white backlash that was already well underway in the early and mid-1960s (before the rise of the Black Panthers, who liberal historians like to blame for the nation’s rightward racial drift under Nixon and Reagan) and to a top-down corporate war on working-class Americans that started under Jimmy Carter and then went ballistic under Ronald Reagan.

Of the two martyrs JFK and King, only the latter posed radical challenges to American racism, classism, militarism, and imperialism.  JFK, by contrast, was an agent of each of those and other interrelated evils.  If Kennedy was killed by the “deep state,” his murder was due to rivalries and resentments within the power elite.  It had nothing to with him posing some threat to the U.S. domestic and/or imperial order. If King was in fact killed by the military police state (and he may well have been), it’s because he truly was an enemy of the reigning American capitalist, and imperial system by the end of his life. He would  have to be counted as one of many people of color who were murdered by the police state authorities during the 1960s and 1970s, alongside Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Lawrence “Buddy” Lamont (Ogala Sioux), and Elliot Lames “LD” Barkley – to name just a handful of those liquidated by the authorities as punishment for engaging in popular resistance in those years.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).