The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years with David Talbot.
David Talbot weaves together interviews with 150 people into a gripping account of the bond between Robert F. Kennedy and his brother John that led Robert almost to the White House in search of his brother's killer. The founder of Salon and a pioneer of online journalism, Talbot asks old questions about who killed the Kennedy brothers and reveals new secrets that might shock you- Commonwealth Club of California
David Talbot is the founder, former editor-in-chief and current CEO of Salon. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years," and the forthcoming "Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love," which will be published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster in spring 2012. Talbot has worked as a senior editor for Mother Jones magazine and has written for numerous publications. He has been hailed as a "web pioneer" by the New York Times and "one of 50 people who matter most in the new media world" by Newsweek.
Good evening and welcome to this night's meeting of the Commonwealth Club ofCalifornia. I am Jerry Lubenow; I am editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Press at theInstitute of Governmental Studies at the University of California. And it's my pleasuretonight to introduce our distinguished speaker David Talbot founder and editor in chiefof Salon, and author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. DavidTalbot is been hailed by the New York Times as a Hailed as a "pioneer of onlinejournalism" for his creation of Salon. But before he invited invaded cyber space, Talbotworked as a senior editor for Mother Jones magazine and as a Features Editor for the SanFrancisco Examiner. He has written for the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and otherpublications as well. In his new book Brothers: The Hidden History of the KennedyYears, Talbot tells a compelling tale of the Kennedy administration from the perspectiveof the tight inner circle of men who served the president. But more than that, it is agripping story of two brothers working together, sharing an unprecedented bond and ofRobert Kennedy's wrenching secret search to track down JFK's killer before his ownassassination. Talbot's revealing revisionist history is based on over a 150 interviewswith Kennedy, administration insiders, friends and family, as well as newly releasedgovernment documents. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome David TalbotThank you Jerry and thank you to the Commonwealth Club for inviting me to come outthis evening, and thank you to all of you for joining me tonight. My book Brothers hasstirred controversy for the most parts because of the point of view that I take or rather thatRobert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States as I document. Took, on theassassination of his brother, President Kennedy. But I would rather not spend most of ourtime together tonight talking about President Kennedy in death, I would like to talkabout, if I could this evening, as he was in life the living JFK because once again ofcoursewe find ourselves in the midst of a presidential cycle, a presidential season. When manydifferent candidates are striving to lay claim to that charismatic mantle and we see this ofcourse every four years.Ted Sorenson in fact, JFK's eloquent speech writer and this week's New Republicsuggests that Barrack Obama might be the next JFK. Others have said, even Mitt Romneyputs them in mind of President Kennedy a Massachusetts politician, from a politicaldynasty with controversial religious affiliation. This morning we see in Maureen Dowd'scolumn in the New York Times that even her sister thought W was the next JFK, when hefirst began campaigning for president. But I would like to talk about who PresidentKennedy was because that's again as I say a source of contention every four years and it'sstill being thrashed out by historians. Was JFK a cold war Hawk as the Washingtonestablishment? And even as left wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and others haveinsisted over the years. Or was he a warrior for peace, as I argue in my book and in therecent cover story in time magazine that I wrote.The confusion begins in some way just with Kennedy himself who was a politicallycomplex man, whose speeches often brandished eras as well as all of branches. In the1960 campaign for president, Kennedy succeeded in out-muscling his republican rivalRichard Nixon on such foreign policy issues as Cuba and the "missile gap". But the sametime he insisted that we should negotiate with our enemy with the Soviet Union. In hisinaugural address in 1961, Kennedy wave to "pay any price, bare any burden, meet anyhardship, support any friend, oppose any further to assure the survival and success ofliberty". But he also dispensed with the normal soviet bashing rhetoric of the day andinvited our enemy to join us in a new quote "quest for peace" before the dark powers ofdestruction unleashed by science engulf all of humanity. You sense a visceral disgust withthe young Jack Kennedy with war and a distrusted of military authority, as a young navalofficer serving in the pacific in world war two; he wrote home all war is stupid. JoeKennedy his older brother's tragic death in that war, he later wrote to a friend turnedmy father and brother and sisters and I upside down and sucked all the oxygen at of oursmug uncomfortable assumptions. Now after all that we experience and lost in this war,we finally understand that there is nothing inevitable about us. An interesting quote givenI think Kennedy's reputation in later years was "god like", "invincible" and so on withKennedy's family sense of entitlement in all of that. But contrast is humble and I thinkwar ravaged experience, with a smug self confidence of our the current administrationwith our President, Vice President. Men who never served their country in battle, but arestill supremely certain of their divine obligation to send other men and women, childrento their deaths.The Bay of Pigs I believe was the first and irreversible rupture in the Kennedyadministration. That operation on April 1961, with the CIA mounted an expedition ofCuban emigrants to invade Cuba and trying to take back the island from Fidel Castro andhis regime. This is the point I believe at which the Kennedy administration, the innercircle, the band of brothers, JFK - his brother and their closest advisors became pittedagainst - what President Eisenhower had called the "military industrial complex". Thesemen, the planners of the Bay of Pigs and the CIA and the Pentagon thought Kennedy wasnot entitled to the full truth before the operation. They withheld key information fromhim. And they believed that when push came to shove and they knew inevitably that their thethe band of invaders would get pinned down on the beaches that Kennedy would beforced to cave in to their pressure and send in the full might of the US military, themarines and the air force.There is a very dramatic scene that I write about in my book that happens in the midst ofthis fiasco. It's late at night at the White House. President Kennedy is been in thereception in the east room after a congrssional reception. He is still in black tails andwhite tie. And a number of the joint chiefs are there as well in there full dress uniforms.And Richard Bissell - the number two man at the CIA who was the chief architect of theBay of Pigs operation frantically comes to the white house at his last effort to try andpersuade the President to change his mind and descend into escalate the Bay of Pigs intoa full scale war in Cuba. He and Admiral Arleigh Burke who is head of the navy, pleadedwith the president to change his mind. But he to their amazement stands his ground anddoesn't bend. And of course the invasion goes down to its inevitable defeat.Later the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff Lyman Leominster said that "what Kennedyhad done was almost criminal". Admiral Burke said "he was a very bad president". Hepermitted himself to jeopardize the nation. Allan Dulles head of the CIA pointed toKennedy's court failure of nerve. He said "JFK was surrounded by doubting Thomas'sand admirers of Castro. Kennedy in turn of course was equally furious and he turned hisfury on the CIA he threatened to shatter it to a 1000 pieces and scattered it to the winds.His friend Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said "the episode seared Kennedy".It made him wonder, even though he had the full powers of the president, was he really incontrol of his own government. Did he specifically control the CIA and the Pentagon?I believed that a treasonous culture began to develop within these military andintelligence circles at this point. It was an amazing period really as I went back over thistime and in my research and interviewed people in the administration and others wentthrough the documents because the picture that emerges of the Kennedy administration isone that is really not than fully reflected in other history books or biographies. It's really agovernment at war with itself. It's Rome, ancient Rome on the Potomac. The level ofintrigue, attention of suspicions within Washington circle is just palpable. You have agrowing and very bold far right in America that's coalescing around the future candidacyof Barry Goldwater for President. You have a military that's increasingly politicized.Most notably in the figure of general Edwin Walker who was a world war two hero andcommander of the 24th infantry a frontline division in West Germany. Walker openlyvilified Kennedy and all other liberals. He distributed the political propaganda to histroops. He advised them how to vote. He thought that Eleanor Stevenson - Adlai -Eleanor Roosevelt rather Adlai Stevenson, Harvard University in Mad Magazine wereall part of the communist conspiracy. Some people say that's true then I heard that inthe audience. He might have had a point at least about Mad Magazine.There were anti-communist Christian rallies throughout the country that were attended byofficers military officers uniformed officers in defiance of the law. And in defiance ofthe secretary of defense, Robert McNamara's explicit orders. When McNamara and theKennedy administration tried to climb down on this growing political fervor within themilitary ranks. There allies, the military's allies on capital hill specifically StromThurmond and others held hearings on the "the muzzling of the military."There were generals like Curtis LeMay, head of the air force. Meanwhile who wereopenly calling for preemptive nuclear war on the Soviet Union. And at Washingtondinner party in Georgetown one evening in 1961, he stunned his dinner mate whohappened to be the wife of a US senator by predicting bravely that the US and the SovietUnion would be engaged in all that nuclear war by the end of the year. And he advisedher to take her children and grandchildren at west somewhere in tumbleweed territory toavoid being obliterated. Arthur Schlesinger the esteemed historian who recently passedtold me in an interview I did for the book. We were certainly not in control of the JointChiefs of Staff. John Seigenthaler former natural newspaper man, publisher of theTennessean who was a devoted Kennedy man - was the number two man in the justicedepartment under Robert Kennedy his right hand man told me the CIA were neverbrought under the Kennedy's control. We were to "we were trying to find our way outof the cold war" he said. But the CIA certainly didn't want to go.At one point JFK orders the FBI to raid the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to try andfind the source of leaks about the Berlin crisis that's building towards a nuclearconfrontation. Again Kennedy feels that his own military commanders were outside of hiscontrol. He was good friends - Kennedy - with the Hollywood film maker JohnFrankenheimer. Also with the journalist Fletcher Knebel who wrote the best selling novel"Seven Days in May" at that time. Seven days in May was a scary political thriller thatpainted a scenario on which the US military attempts a coup in Washington. And attemptsto overthrow a piece of minded president. Fletcher Knebel the author of the book coauthor of the book said that he was - "the idea came to him after interviewing CurtisLeMay in hearing his traitorous talk about the president - President Kennedy. JFKthought it was so important that this book reached as widen as possible that he went to hisfriend in Hollywood, John Frankenheimer the director of "The Manchurian Candidate"another cold war thriller that was of great interest to Kennedy. And he persuadedFrankenheimer to make this into a movie. In fact turned over the White House to himwhile he was up in Cape Cod one weekend. So Frankenheimer could film some scenes there.So the Kennedy administration I think is set on a dangerous course very early on withthese rising tensions and conflicts within the administration. And Cuba is the eye of thisstorm. Cuba could have been the Iraq of its day. Enormous pressures on Kennedy toconfront the enemy somewhere in the world, and Cuba was the first choice. TheKennedy's were forced adopt an aggressive posture for that reason on Cuba, but I believeby enlarge what they did was mostly for show. In the book I analyzed their programOperation Mongoose which many people have conflated with the assassination programsaimed at Fidel Castro, but that's simply not the case. Operation Mongoose was run by aformer adman named Ed Landsdale. And it was mostly for show. He came up with somecock-eyed schemes and today these stabilizes the Cuban government at one pointsuggesting that US naval ships shoot off starbursts above the island and strike terror intothe hearts of the Catholic population who would then be moved to rise up against thegodless Castro and over throw him. That one never got off the ground. But in themeantime while the Kennedy's are making a show of trying to go after Castro anddestabilize him with what they are really doing is something more interesting. I thinkthey are trying to find another path. And throughout the administration, they send outvarious peace feelers to Castro. At one point in the form of New York Attorney namedJim Donavan - very interesting guy who goes down there with a Bobby Kennedy guide fromthe justice department, John Nolen and engages in interesting series of discussions withwith Castro about how they could cut the deal basically.At one point they think, they come up with the idea of giving as a piece offering Castroa wet suit because they know that he loves to dive. And they actually go to AbercrombieFitch to get this wet suit. John Nolen later when he was watching TV, flash forward now tothe 1970s, the church committee was stunned to hear that this wet suit apparently thenbecame part of a CIA plot on being on to both him and Jim Donavan that it was it waspoisoned with toxins that were suppose to then be delivered to Castro andassassinate him. He was ofcourse stunned when he realized that the CIA had attemptedto do this. At least I hovered an ABC news women, another point hooks up withKennedy man at the UN. A diplomat namely Maywood and also was carrying outinteresting back channel negotiations with Fidel Castro. And I go into a story that I thinkis fascinating about how Dick Goodwin who was Kennedy's point man on Cuba andLatin America for a while. And help develop the alliance for progress programs. How hemet secretly with Che Guevara after after a conference in Uruguay. And later causedquite a storm back at home. So the truth about John Kennedy is very interesting that wellhe adopted tough military postures. Or tough postures, rhetorical postures rather in public.In private what he was doing was something quite different in many cases. He was anartful diplomatic dancer. He knew that most of his own government was out of hiscontrol. Including the state department, the Pentagon, the CIA. Often he was the onlyman in the room who was looking for the peaceful solutions to various crisis and Laos inVietnam and Berlin and Cuba. He really becomes a much greater figure a heroic figurein my eyes as a result of this. I think lost in the sort of the gassy Chamelot mythology andthen the revisionism, the back lash against the Kennedy's and against JFK in particular ina decadent prince. Is this heroism, this most substantial heroism as I see it. A presidentwho had the stamina, the intelligence, the back bone to stand up to some of the mostpowerful forces in American political life. And say no to them and he was being pushedrelentlessly again and again to go to war.I came across a fascinating document a national intelligence estimate document from1962 about what have happened if the US had invaded, launched a full scale militaryinvasion of Cuba. And it's fasting because of course it has here the echoes of what wesaw many years later. The CIA predicted that if we did this our troops would cut quicklythrough Castro's forces and march victoriously on to arena But at that point we would getblocked down in a long and bloody occupation. The Cuban people and the reminisce ofCastro's forces would grow restive and angry. Would launch attacks on US troop. Theywould respond to this terrorism, over react to this terrorism. More lives would be lost.World opinion it would turn against the United States and so on. And of course thatreads eerily like what happened with her act today. I think JFK was aware of this. JFKwas a very interesting figure when it comes to analyzing the place of the US in the world.He was an anti imperialist. There was a fascinating article that just appeared in the BostonGlobe by Ted Widmer. The 50th anniversary of a speech that Kennedy gave in the senateon the problem of Algeria which was then ofcourse war resisting French the Frenchoccupation. He rose to deliver that speech on July 2nd 1957. Ted Widmer writes in theglobe. And he began with the ragging statement. Kennedy said the most powerful singleforce in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism. Neither the H-Bomb northe guided missile. It's man's eternal desire to be free and independent. Hardly anyonewould agree with that would disagree with that Widmer points out But Kennedycontinued with a provocative thought that imperialism, as Kennedy said was the chief foeof freedom and that the western form of imperialism was very nearly as bad as the Sovietversion. By emphasizing America's desire to spread freedom in the middle east, hecouldn't have sounded more or like today's Neo-conservative architects of the Iraqwars, Widmer points out by stressing the impossibility of spreading freedom throughforce however Kennedy could not have sounded more different.From the moment he spoke on Algeria, Widmer continues. It was no longer possible todismiss John Kennedy as a Callow young man whose office had been brought for him byhis father. The canard that was widely circulated at that time with his Algeria speechKennedy proved himself a serious foreign policy thinker and a most viable candidate forthe highest office in the land. So Kennedy's philosophy on this goes back to his days inthe senate. Through out his administration, these clashes between Kennedy and his hardlines continue through the even in domestic crisis like old myths when James Meredithtries to become the first black student to enroll at the university of Mississippi and sets offan enormous conflagration on the campus that night. There is a thin line of federalmarshals who quickly have been scrambled and sent down to the campus to trying toprotect Meredith there is a white mob screaming for his head, trying to lynch him. Theblood is flowing, many people are shot and wounded that night. The - two people die andthe Kennedys and we now know this because that night was all taped by the WhiteHouse taping system - are absolutely frantic to get the military to move. To rescue thefederal Marshalls and to make sure that Meredith isn't lynched. And they can'tunderstand why the army isn't moving more quickly hours go by and the unit is stillhaven't been mobilized and when you hear them they bring up the novel again "Sevendays in May". Is this a mutiny? Is the military resisting? Is it defying our orders? So thiswas very much on the minds of the Kennedys in fact the number of times in which JohnKennedy discusses the prospect of a violent end to his administration either throughassassination or coup of some sort is remarkable. But despite this, he soldiered on and hedelivered I think some of the most important speeches of the century. Speechesthat in some cases are lost or forgotten but should be remembered and taught. I think inclass rooms throughout America. It's the speech for instance that Kennedy gives on histour of the country. In which he is answering he is writing in critics, we are trying to push him into war.In November 1961, at the University of Washington, he said something amazing, he said"we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient". Thatwe are only six percent of the world's population, that we can not impose our will uponthe other 94 percent of mankind. Excuse me, that we can not write every wrong orreverse each adversity. And that therefore there cannot be an American solution to everyworld problem. Sounds very different from the that we are hearing on Washington today.Over a speech - the famous Peace Speech he gave at American University two years laterin June 1963. In which he said that "we might find our enemy's beliefs quite profoundlyrepugnant to our own. But we must still talk to them. We must recognize our commonhumanity. He said we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air. We allcherish our children's future. And we are all mortal. This state of course to I think whenthe first great diplomatic breakthroughs with the soviet union, the limited test ban treatysoon afterwards. So when Hillary Clinton attacks Barrack Obama, she did recently afterthe debates for being naÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¯ve for declaring that he will talk directly to our enemies if he iselected president with no preconditions. This is not a fabricated controversy as Barracktried to dismiss this. It goes to the very heart of where the America's role should be in theworld today. This is a national discussion that President Kennedy began nearly 50 yearsago. It was aborted by his assassination. And America as a result has gone down a pathof imperial sorrows. To use Chalmers Johnson's term. As Johnson has written, "empiresinevitably corrupt and degrade democracies."There is fragility to democracies if you read history that I think the Kennedys were all welltoo aware of. Kennedys were great readers of history of course and Bobby Kennedywas a particular fan of Edith Hamilton's book "The Greek Way" on the fleeting beauty ofof the great Athenian democracy. You see this corruption process. The censoriousprocess that worked during Kennedy's era. No one was a better student a keenobserver of the dark side of American power, then our attorney general RobertKennedy the president's younger brother and devoted protector. And Bobby thoughtone of the most alarming developments of his day was how legitimate authority, howgovernment, politicians, unions, businesses. Were being corrupted by their affiliations withsome of the darker forces and the criminal underworld. And he became a crusaderagainst us this as also a senator investigator in the 1950s with the senator racketscommittee. And then as attorney general, he was particularly alarmed I believe when hewas told for the first time that the CIA had developed a pact with the mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro.We were led to believe and even most recently with the release of the CIA's so calledfamily jewels that the Kennedys approved these assassination efforts, approved gettinginto bed with the mafia. But I think nothing could be furthered from the truth. This wasanathema to everything that Robert Kennedy stood for as John Seigenthaler and otherspointed out. And of course the CIA and and the people who take the CIA's point ofview on this debate, never were able to provide evidence that the Kennedys did in factapprove those assassination efforts against Fidel Castro. And when Ethel Kennedy,Robert's widow years later met with Fidel Castro in person in Havana, he assured herthat he knew the Kennedy weren't behind the attempts on his life. And ofcourse one of thereasons why Fidel Castro is still alive today is because he was very successful in infiltratingthose Cuban exile and intelligence communities in Florida where much of this plotting was going on.You see the same dark alliance of course in other countries that work today, in Russia, orLatin countries where drug cartels have incentivated themselves into the halls of power.You see this collision of legitimate authority with mafia lords. And often it's too liquidatethreats from dissident political leaders or business figures or journalists to the centers ofpower in these countries. Well this is precisely what Robert Kennedy thought it happenedto his brother on the afternoon of November 22nd 1963. This is how my book beginstells the story what happened that afternoon as Bobby Kennedy learns the terrible news from Dallas.Bobby Kennedy was a man on fire to find out the truth about what happened to hisbrother. And he was determined to regain power. Get back to the white house to bringhis brother's killers to justice and to resume JFK's policies of peace. Bobby Kennedyremarkably communicated his conclusions about Dallas directly to the Soviet Union aweek after the assassination. Assuring the soviet officials that both he and Jackie andKennedy family did not blame them for the murder of JFK even though that's the waythat Lee Harvey Oswald the alleged assassin was being portrayed in the US media as acommunist sympathesizer.So when men like Attorney Vincent Bugliosi stand before esteemed organizations likethis. And argue that the case is closed. He is simply playing fast and loose with the truthswith the historical truth. The political lead in this country as well as the American peoplenever believed the official version of the assassination of John Kennedy. Not RobertKennedy, not Lyndon Johnson, not even members of the Warren commission itself. NotRichard Nixon, not members of the church committee in house elect committee onassassinations which did the best government investigative work into the crime in Dallas.When crimes against democracy like both Kennedy assassinations are allowed to gounsolved, it poisons the heart and soul of a nation. It raises the haunting thought thatanything might be possible in the darker corners of our democracy. When dark forceswhat dark forces will progressive our presidents in the future phase. The military industrialcomplex, these forces that Kennedy was up against is still alive and well and looking for its next war.As C. Wright Mills, the maverick sociologist wrote back in the 1950s, for the first time inAmerican history men and authority are talking about an emergency without foreseeableend. Such men are crack pot realists. In the name of realism they have constructed aparanoid reality all their own. Still rings true today.The American people have a right to their history. The CIA is still stone walling on 1000sof pages irrelevant documents about the assassination of President Kennedy in directdefiance of the 1991 JFK act. And first and foremost we must set a historical recordstraight on the real John F Kennedy and his presidency. At the height of the cold war JohnKennedy found a way to inch back from the nuclear principles. Under relentlesspressure to go to war he kept the peace. He talked to his enemies. He recognized thelimits of the American power. He understood that our true power came from ourdemocratic ideals. Not our military prowess. He is still a man ahead of his time.Thank you very much.