1960-1966: Cold War Crucible and Crucial Era for Understanding the Late 20th Century



For several years I have been teaching an undergraduate course on late 20th century world history, and for convenience I chose to describe it in the syllabus as a course about the “Cold War.” I quickly found that label an obstacle to understanding contemporary history, but I kept it reluctantly as a convenient term that students were familiar with. The greatest difficulty in teaching this course was the lack of knowledge the students had of the modern world. Those who had taken some history courses were likely to have studied times and places farther back in time. Education systems have deliberately avoided teaching modern history in order stay clear of controversies over official narratives. With this gap in knowledge, for which the students are not responsible, it was difficult to find points of entry into the topic. I found it useful to study certain events, personalities, time periods which are the most illustrative of the Cold War period and which they can use to gain traction in their way forward through this broad field of study.
After much experience in teaching the various eras of the Cold War, competing ideologies, superpower leaders, and every significant event and social influence of the Cold War years, I found that the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy was the best gateway story for illustrating the essential aspects of the Cold War, and it was one that students found most compelling. Kennedy’s presidency was the time when the nuclear arms race reached its peak, and the possibility of détente and de-escalation arose for the first time. It was also a time when the United States first faced domestic opposition to foreign policy, the limitations of its power, and the threat posed by the security state and the military-industrial-congressional complex. Yet it proceeded recklessly into wars in Southeast Asia and Latin America, with devastating consequences for people in those regions.
For historians, there are controversial questions around Kennedy that are still unresolved. For those with anti-communist leanings, he was a betrayer of American values who backed down from the challenges posed by Ho Chi Minh, Castro and Khrushchev. For those on the left, he was one of two things. Some see evidence that he had a serious intention to avoid war in Vietnam, promote peaceful and just development of the Third World, and co-exist peacefully with the Soviet Union. In this view, popularized by the Oliver Stone film JFK[1] and by John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power,[2] he was murdered by agents of the security state who were opposed to a peaceful resolution to the Cold War.
Others on the left say this view is just wishful speculation. This argument was most famously put forward by Noam Chomsky in his book Rethinking Camelot.[3] Chomsky contends that a few speeches in the last year of Kennedy’s life and his attempts to reform the CIA should not be taken as evidence of what he really would or could have done if he had not been assassinated. For Chomsky there is insufficient evidence to support the former theory, but the controversy persists because adherents of that theory find certain statements made by Kennedy indicate what he would have done if he had lived beyond 1963. Regardless of what one believes about it, the controversy serves as a touchstone to understanding the central issues of the Cold War and American political culture that endure until this day when the current president is seen as a threat to the political establishment and the institutions of the security state.
This paper focuses on the years just before, during and just after the Kennedy presidency, with particular attention to events in three regions: (1) Cuba and Latin America, (2) Vietnam, and (3) Indonesia and West Papua. One of the sources discussed below proposes that Kennedy probably was murdered because of the threat he posed to the plans of the security state, in particular its plans for Indonesia, a country that has received little attention in historical studies of Kennedy’s presidency. However, there is still insufficient evidence for the theory of Kennedy as peacemaker and lost savior. Kennedy remained committed to fighting communism even in the last months of his life, and his kinder, gentler plans for development in the Third World offered little appeal to socialist and nationalist movements throughout the world. Events in Southeast Asia and Latin America in subsequent years may not have been much different if Kennedy had lived on past 1963.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Imagine a scenario in the early 1960s in which the United States placed nuclear weapons in Okinawa (then a US, not Japanese, territory) and the Soviet leadership, enraged about nuclear missiles being so close to Vladivostok, placed a transportation “quarantine” on Okinawa and threatened a massive aerial bombardment if the weapons were not withdrawn, pushing the world to the brink of global nuclear war. Imagine a Hollywood movie about such a time when Americans recklessly brought the world close to nuclear war, a movie about how the calm and heroic Soviet president deftly took the world back from the brink. Of course, this never happened—at least not the part about the enraged response and threat of war made because of nuclear missiles in Okinawa. There really were nuclear missiles in Okinawa, but the Soviet leadership never reacted to them the way Americans reacted to the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962.[4]
When the Cuban Missile Crisis arose, the Kennedy administration had in recent years tried to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba in the failed Bay of Pigs attack. It had essentially declared war on Cuba. During the missile crisis, the administration had again announced its intention to invade Cuba, this time with a massive air raid meant to destroy all of its military capacity and overthrow Castro. So Cuba definitely had good reason to feel threatened, and the only way that such a small country could defend itself from a large, nuclear-armed threat was to seek help from a big ally and have its own nuclear deterrent. The Cubans and Soviets defined these weapons as “defensive” deterrent, and the Americans described their nuclear weapons the same way. There was a general taboo against “first use” of nuclear weapons, so everyone who had them considered them to be “defensive.” Thus, when the Americans asked the Soviet United Nations ambassador during the missile crisis if the USSR had placed “offensive” weapons in Cuba, he was not exactly lying when he said “no.” It depends on what one calls “offensive” and “defensive.” Nonetheless, the Soviets were portrayed at the time, and later in films such as Thirteen Days, as liars.
During the missile crisis, while America had been making clear preparations for war and announcing its intent to attack Cuba, an American fighter jet flew over Cuba and the Cuban military shot it down. How could Cuba not see this, at this time of high tension, as an act of aggression and decide to not shoot down the plane? Cuba could have decided not to shoot at it, in order to not worsen a dangerous situation, but it is not at all surprising that they shot it down under these circumstances. However, the Americans referred to this, at the time and forever after, as an act of war and an escalation of the conflict by the Cubans, not by the Americans. Surely, a similar act by the Soviets or Cubans at this time, for example a surveillance flight over Florida, would have been seen by America as an act of war, and the plane would have been shot out of the sky. There are other blind spots in many American analyses of the thirteen days of the crisis, even in those that claim the importance of empathizing with the enemy has been learned. They fail to see that the Cuban Missile Crisis may never have happened if America had not…

1.  tried on numerous occasions to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba, and continued to threaten future aggression,
2.  placed nuclear missiles in Turkey which were as close to the USSR as Cuba is to Florida,
3.  failed to acknowledge that it was the “quarantine” (blockade) imposed by Kennedy that was illegal, not Cuba’s request to seek protection from the USSR—international law did not forbid one nation from requesting protection from another, whether the weapons shared were nuclear or conventional.[5]

The crisis was resolved only when the Americans agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey and pledged to make no further attacks on Cuba—two things which they could have done long before the crisis emerged. There was irony in the fact that the Americans intended to remove the missiles in Turkey anyway because they were old, but they didn’t want to do it in a situation that would look like they were bending to Soviet pressure. In the final agreement, Kennedy insisted that the agreement about the missiles in Turkey be kept secret so that he wouldn’t look weak to the American public. Indeed, news media of the time did not mention the missiles in Turkey and they portrayed the Soviets as the side that had backed down.
In a certain sense, the Cuban Missile Crisis was much ado about nothing. It didn’t have to happen, and there are many ways it could have been avoided before it became a crisis. Americans still seem to have a lot of difficulty admitting their share of responsibility for it. Many years later, in the early 1990s when the “Kennedy as lost savior” theory was in full swing, Christopher Hitchens commented wryly,

[The film JFK] opens with Eisenhower saying America should beware of the military industrial complex, but it fails to say that Kennedy ran against Eisenhower and Nixon from the right, accusing them of selling the country to the Russians, accusing them of giving Cuba away, inventing a missile gap that wasn’t there, and moving into Vietnam… [The film said] the country lost its innocence by losing this man [Kennedy]… A country that had been through Hiroshima and McCarthyism hadn’t any innocence to lose… like everyone else in my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing on the fateful day when John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me because I can remember the Cuba crisis and I can remember him, so far from hating nuclear war and nuclear weapons, being prepared to risk nuclear war for a quarrel with Cuba that he was conducting by means of a hit team, originally, employing the Mafia to try and kill Castro.[6]

One element of the crisis that was never a concern at the time, or in the studies that followed, was the ecological damage that would have resulted from the aerial assault that Kennedy and his ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) were contemplating on the missiles in Cuba. Even if nuclear war could have been avoided, there was great risk in the plan to destroy nuclear missiles before they could be launched. The Americans assumed that the nuclear warheads were not yet on the missiles, but they had no way of knowing for certain. The warheads (we hope) could have been destroyed without causing nuclear explosions, but their destruction could have caused enormous amounts of plutonium and other poisons to be spread over Cuba and much of the Caribbean Sea, and the southeast USA as well. It could have been a catastrophe of nuclear and chemical contamination without nuclear explosions, but in 1962 awareness of such environmental hazards was extremely limited.
The Soviet and American leaders had a shocking lack of ability to communicate with each other directly during the crisis. After the crisis, they fixed this problem by creating a “hotline” system. Both sides had great difficulty in understanding who was in charge during the crisis. The military commanders on both sides had their own agendas separate from the political leaders, so each side felt great confusion about what was going on in the other government. Who was really in control? Many of the commanders were veterans of WWII, and they were “fighting the last war”; that is, their attitudes and their strategies were completely unsuited for the nuclear age. The Soviet leadership had lived through Hitler’s invasion during WWII. Military commanders were slow to understand that risk of global nuclear war called for new tactics and much greater caution. They had a frightening lack of understanding about how the nature of war had changed—how every gesture and small incident on the battlefield was an act of communication relayed instantly to the enemy’s political leadership in Washington or Moscow. 
Even during a moment of crisis, the bureaucracy of the Cold War was still in operation. Far away in the middle of the Pacific, American bureaucrats in the military and Department of Energy didn’t realize this was not a good time to be carrying out nuclear bomb tests that had been planned for late October, and Kennedy, preoccupied as he was, didn’t think about cancelling them. He also didn’t stop bomber patrols near the Russian Far East, but he was shocked to find out that these routine operations were still happening during the crisis. They were further signals that made the Soviets wonder if the military was undermining Kennedy and making negotiation with him impossible.
Such incidents, along with the threats to attack Cuba, gave the Soviets reason to be the first to attack, a fact that both sides were aware of. When the Americans announced that they would attack on Monday, if certain conditions were not met, this just gave the Soviets good reason to reject the demands and be the first to attack on Sunday. Fortunately, they didn’t. The Americans were being quite reckless in this regard, and, in fact, the military commanders were eager to have this confrontation so that they could (in their imaginations) finish off Castro’s government quickly before the warheads were loaded onto missiles.
Civilization “lucked out” as Robert McNamara said in the film Fog of War.[7] The crisis made it clear that no government had figured out a way to keep a nuclear war from starting by accident, misunderstanding, minor acts of aggression, recklessness, independent actions by military personnel, or just bureaucratic inertia. The problem still exists today, even though the world has developed a false sense of security since the USSR broke up in the early 1990s and most, but far from all, of the two superpowers’ nuclear weapons were destroyed.
The Soviets were reckless for the decision to let a good part of their nuclear arsenal go to the opposite side of the world to be left with a government they had very little experience with. They sent nuclear-armed diesel-powered submarines, designed for Arctic waters, to distant tropical waters where they lost contact with Moscow. The famous story of the man who saved the world tells of how one officer on one of these subs over-ruled another who was ready to launch his nuclear torpedoes.[8]
After the crisis, Castro was angry that the Soviets had backed down and agreed to remove the missiles. As compensation, he wanted to keep the 100 tactical (low-yield, battlefield use) nuclear weapons which the Americans didn’t know about. The Soviets considered it for a time, but soon realized they could never again risk having any of their arsenal outside of their direct control. They insisted on taking them all back.[9]
Castro saw possession of nuclear weapons as the only way to deter further American aggression, and he had thought the Soviets were committed to providing this shield. Instead the Soviets got a promise of non-aggression toward Cuba in exchange for withdrawing the weapons, which was not a bad compromise as far as Cuba was concerned. Toward the end of the crisis Castro wrote a message to Khrushchev suggesting that, in order to avoid what then seemed like the inevitable first strike from America, the USSR should strike first. Khrushchev later wrote, “It became clear to us that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose. We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the United States, but to keep the United States from attacking Cuba.” He later replied to Castro, “You proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war.”[10]
In a review of The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, Benjamin Schwarz summarized how the book’s author, Sheldon M. Stern, overturned the long-held view that Kennedy heroically led America away from the nuclear brink.[11] In fact, Stern shows that Kennedy took the world recklessly to the brink, then, once there, endangered the world further by prioritizing political survival and saving face. Kennedy could not let Republicans portray him to domestic voters as weak, and America had to show the world that it would not back down in the face of a challenge or give up its goal of overthrowing Castro. Yet in spite of the fundamentally hypocritical assumption that Cuba had no right to invite an ally to place weapons on its territory, and despite Kennedy’s role in creating the crisis, he saved the world by ignoring the near-unanimous advice to attack Cuba that came from ExComm, the Joint Chiefs and Congress. For that we have to be grateful. Kennedy said afterwards about the crisis, “You have no idea how much bad advice I received in those days.[12]
In spite of what was said at the time, and repeated in histories that came later, the record shows that in 1962 American officials knew that the missiles in Cuba didn’t alter the strategic balance. They also knew that American missiles in Turkey had upset the balance because they required hours to prepare for launch. This meant that they had no deterrent effect and were only destabilizing because they were useful only for a first strike, or they were a target to be taken out by a Soviet first strike. Everyone knew this and knew that this was a motivation for the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba. Everyone also knew that there was no missile gap, as Kennedy had claimed during his election campaign against Richard Nixon. Americans had overall superiority in nuclear weapons and a sufficient deterrent capacity, regardless of any missiles that might be deployed in Cuba for Cuba’s own deterrent purposes.
It should have also been obvious to world opinion, if not American perceptions, that if one country could have nuclear weapons, any country could have nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty did not exist at the time. Cuba had as much right as Japan to ask to be put under the nuclear umbrella of an ally. It was the blockade of Cuba during the crisis, euphemistically called a “quarantine,” which was illegal. Khrushchev is often described as “crazy” for having sent the missiles to Cuba, but it is possible that he reasonably expected that the right to do so would be accepted just as the Soviets had accepted American missiles in Turkey and Okinawa, without threatening to start WWIII. Khrushchev was reckless only because he was foolish enough to assume Americans had a sense of fairness.
By the time the Americans offered to remove the missiles in Turkey, the Soviets were just as terrified as their rival and eager to back down from the crisis. They even agreed to make the withdrawal of the Turkish missiles a secret that wouldn’t be revealed to the public in either country. Kennedy also promised to stop aggression against Cuba, another gesture that could have been made long before the crisis developed, seeing as how it went against international law and the UN Charter to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, to threaten war, or make war on them. The crisis arose from America’s belief that international law didn’t apply to itself.[13]
Nonetheless, even on the eve of the planned massive air raid on Cuba that had a 50-50 chance of resulting in global nuclear war, Kennedy was worried about losing face domestically and internationally—worried about letting down allies and about the political fallout more than about the radioactive fallout. It is to his credit that, as the audio recordings of the ExComm meetings make clear, in the end he didn’t listen to the hawkish advice of the men around him. Almost all of them, including his brother Robert, had pushed for invasion and non-nuclear bombing of Cuba, and Sheldon Stern’s book on these recordings suggests that if anyone else had been president, even Robert Kennedy, nuclear war would not have been avoided. John F. Kennedy was responsible for creating the crisis, but he was also wise enough to ignore the near-unanimous opinion that he should attack Cuba and take a 50-50 risk of initiating global nuclear war.
At the approximate mid-point of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis may be the best single episode of the era for highlighting many of its important characteristics. The willingness of the superpowers to risk nuclear holocaust revealed their ugly priorities and the sorts of lesser damage that they would tolerate to pursue their goals. As humanity faced up to the real possibility of nuclear war for the first time, it was a stark revelation of the new frontier in human awareness that the nuclear age ushered in. Stern calls it the most significant non-event of the 20th century. By 1968, an entire generation of youth in Chicago, Paris and Prague would be on the streets protesting this world that their elders had created for them.
Since the crisis, the two superpowers have never recognized their own fundamental hypocrisy. By claiming the right to have thousands of nuclear weapons for their own security, they cannot admit that smaller nations like Cuba would want them too for the same deterrent purposes. Furthermore, because of America’s vast superiority in conventional weapons and military spending, all other nuclear powers have motives to keep their nuclear deterrent, and other countries have reasons to want one. This is an inconvenient truth that nuclear disarmament activists are often curiously silent about. Everyone wants to abolish nuclear weapons. It is an easy thing with which to signal one’s virtue. On the other hand, if nuclear disarmament activists are ignorant of the imbalance in conventional military power, they are operating narrow-mindedly in the field of international relations, oblivious to what kind of world we will be left with when nuclear deterrence is gone. They are consciously ignoring the concerns of nations that feel threatened by American dominance.[14] In light of the current crisis in which Russia has been rebranded by the US-NATO bloc as a “hostile foreign power” and North Korea has been placed in the role of Cuba in 1962 (labelled as a threat rather than a possessor of a deterrent), Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke of his desire to recommit to disarmament treaties and of the dangers posed by new developments in conventional weapons:

While Putin insisted that Russia “still wants and will pursue” new agreements with the US to achieve nuclear disarmament, these may be harder to negotiate in an era of more diverse weapons systems, being produced by more states than ever before. “Countries’ readiness to talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons is in direct proportion to their advances in other weapons systems,” said Putin, noting that both conventional and high-tech weapons delivered with modern targeting system “offer almost as much damage, with far superior accuracy.”[15]

The Cuban Missile Crisis could have been avoided if America had simply accepted Cuba’s nuclear arsenal for the time being and then begun leading the world out of the arms race—through the example of unilateral reductions if necessary. That was always an option, if the United States were truly interested in avoiding the risk of accidentally stumbling into a nuclear conflict. The crisis could be traced back precisely to America’s refusal to follow Leo Szilard’s advice in 1945 to avoid an arms race by putting nuclear weapons under a system of international control. President Truman pursued this proposal, but he appointed the devoted anti-communist Bernard Baruch who made sure that the plan included “inspections and other provisions that the Soviets would be certain to reject.”[16]
The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the recklessness that political leaders are capable of in the handling of nuclear arsenals. Furthermore, an element of this recklessness was the superpowers’ creation of a situation in which the tail wagged the dog. Cuba took them both on a wild ride in which it ultimately obtained a certain degree of security it had failed to obtain otherwise.

Kennedy After the Cuban Missile Crisis

On the less conservative side of the American political spectrum there are generally two views about how Kennedy changed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. One view says that he became a different man and wanted to alter course drastically. He sought détente with Khrushchev and wanted to end the Cold War. He wanted to break up the CIA, end American involvement in Vietnam and reconcile with Cuba. In June 1963, he made his famous speech at American University which seemed to indicate this new direction was sincere and radical. Many believe this is the reason he was assassinated by enemies within national security complex.
The other view holds that this talk of a new direction was just talk, the elegant speechifying that Kennedy and other presidents tailor according to what an audience wants to hear. In recent years we heard President Obama give a speech about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize soon afterward. Yet during his time as president he approved the one-trillion dollar plan to renew the US nuclear arsenal, and he made no progress on disarmament. If he had died shortly after his speech, like Kennedy, his early speeches would be held up endlessly as evidence that he was the last great hope for world peace.
In Kennedy’s case, his aspirational speeches may have frightened his domestic enemies into plotting against him, but he never got a chance to carry out his plan, so we will never know what he might have tried to accomplish. It is more likely that he didn’t want to accomplish much, and couldn’t have accomplished much if he had wanted to. Fidel Castro heard about Kennedy’s development plan called Alliance for Progress, which was to be a new third way between capitalism and communism for developing countries. Kennedy famously promoted it with the line, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”[17] Castro saw some merit in the plan, but he believed it would ultimately fail. Two days before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Castro told the journalist Jean Daniel:

Suddenly a president arrives on the scene who tries to support the interests of another class (which has no access to any of the levers of power) to give the various Latin American countries the impression that the United States no longer stands behind the dictators, and so there is no more need to start Castro-type revolutions… The trusts see that their interests are being a little compromised (just barely, but still compromised); the Pentagon thinks the strategic bases are in danger; the powerful oligarchies in all the Latin American countries alert their American friends; they sabotage the new policy; and in short, Kennedy has everyone against him. The few liberal or allegedly liberal presidents who were chosen as instruments of the new policy are swept out of office…[18]

This interview with Jean Daniel is famous because it was paired with his interview with Kennedy one month earlier. Quotations of these two interviews are often held up as proof that Kennedy and Castro could have established a lasting peace, if Kennedy had not been killed. Some parts of the interviews can be used to support this view, but the full article shows that there was still a lot of distance between both men. Kennedy started by saying:

I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy.

This sounds like a genuine olive branch offered to Castro, and it was a surprising statement coming from an American president who had recently done so much to undermine the new Cuban government, but he continued:

I am the President of a free nation which has certain responsibilities in the Free World. I know that Castro betrayed the promises made in the Sierra Maestra, and that he has agreed to be a Soviet agent in Latin America. I know that through his fault—either his ‘will to independence,’ his madness or Communism—the world was on the verge of nuclear war in October, 1962. The Russians understood this very well, at least after our reaction [emphasis added]; but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned, I must say that I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he cares about it… the nations of Latin America are not going to attain justice and progress… through Communist subversion. They won’t get there by going from economic oppression to a Marxist dictatorship which Castro himself denounced a few years ago.

These words were not conciliatory at all, and they reflect a continuation of his belief that he described in Profiles in Courage.[19] He described communist ideology as “that foreign ideology that fears free thought more than it fears hydrogen bombs,” yet he refrained from stating what was a logical conclusion about the nuclear standoff with a power that had this alleged fear of free thought: Likewise, one could say that American ideology fears communism more than it fears hydrogen bombs.
It should be noted that the harsh tone against Castro in October 1963 contradicts what Kennedy had said a few months earlier in his lofty speech at American University which lauded the Soviet Union for its achievements and sacrifices without uttering harsh warnings about Soviet-sponsored communist subversion in the world. Because of these contradictory statements, it would be better to judge the man by his deeds rather than his words.
There was much in Kennedy’s interview with Daniel that Castro rejected:

...how can the American government seriously believe that Cuban subversion is at the root of explosions taking place all over the South American continent? In Venezuela, for example, are you familiar with the situation there? Do you think the Venezuelans need us to understand what’s going on in their country? Do you think we don’t have enough problems of our own? ...This doesn’t mean we do not feel solidarity toward nations that are struggling and suffering, like the Venezuelan people. But it is up to those nations to decide what they want, and if they choose other regimes than ours, that isn’t our business.

Castro also responded to the charge that it was his “madness” which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. He revealed that a meeting early in 1962 between Khrushchev’s son-in-law and President Kennedy was the primary cause of Cuba’s decision to seek a nuclear deterrent:

...we had received an accumulation of information that a new invasion of the island was being prepared under sponsorship of the Central Intelligence Agency... but we had doubts as to the attitude of the President... Then one day Khrushchev’s son-in-law, Adzhubei, came to pay us a visit before going on to Washington at the invitation of Kennedy’s associates... Adzhubei had been received by the American Chief Executive, and their talk centered particularly on Cuba... [Adzhubei’s report] triggered the whole situation... he had said that the new situation in Cuba was intolerable for the United States, that the American government had decided it would not tolerate it any longer; he had said that peaceful coexistence was seriously compromised by the fact that ‘Soviet influences’ in Cuba altered the balance of strength, was destroying the equilibrium agreed upon and Kennedy reminded the Russians that the United States had not intervened in Hungary, which was obviously a way of demanding Russian non-intervention in the event of a possible invasion. To be sure, the actual word ‘invasion’ was not mentioned... But... the Russians too began to interpret the Kennedy-Adzhubei conversation as we saw it... By the end of a month, the Russian and Cuban governments had reached the definite conviction that an invasion might take place from one moment to the next... [Khrushchev] asked us what we wanted. We replied: do whatever is needed to convince the United States that any attack on Cuba is the same as an attack on the Soviet Union... The Russians explained to us that their concern was twofold: first, they wanted to save the Cuban revolution... and at the same time they wished to avoid a world conflict. They reasoned that if conventional military aid was the extent of their assistance, the United States might not hesitate to institute an invasion, in which case Russia would retaliate and this would inevitably touch off a world war.

With this line of reasoning, Castro explained how the missiles were placed in Cuba as a deterrent in order to prevent the “inevitable” world war. Of course, war was not inevitable. The Soviets could have decided to abandon Cuba, but they had made a commitment, and it was logical for them to assume America could be deterred with nuclear weapons. They just didn’t foresee the irrational American response of threatening an invasion even after the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro went on in the interview to add that they never tried very hard to hide the missiles because he was eager for deterrence to take effect. He was surprised that it took Americans two months to notice them. Castro had wanted them to notice earlier because he had assumed that the threat of invasion would then be gone. However, this raises an interesting question: Why didn’t Castro and Khrushchev tell the United States loudly and clearly that strategic and tactical nuclear warheads were already deployed in Cuba before the crisis began? They remained ambiguous about this point throughout the crisis when they knew the Americans were planning an attack based on the hope that the nuclear weapons had not been deployed. There is no point in having a deterrent if your adversaries don’t know about it.
Adzhubei’s message reveals the tragic misunderstanding at the root of the crisis. Ironically, Khrushchev was acting more “Stalinist” than Stalin. During Stalin’s time, spheres of influence had been respected. For example, the Americans stayed out of Hungary and the Soviets had stayed out of Greece, based on agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin regarding the way the world would be carved up after WWII. Now Kennedy expected Khrushchev to stay out of Cuba because Latin America was considered America’s sphere of influence, but he didn’t realize things had changed. Cubans had spontaneously and independently chosen socialist revolution, and the Soviets did not want to abandon them. By misapprehending the situation, Kennedy then blundered by letting his enemies know that an invasion of Cuba was definitely going to happen. In assuming the Soviets would stay out of Cuba, Kennedy made a categorical error—thinking Cuba was similar to the European nations that had been allotted to Soviet or American domination. He was, so to speak, fighting the last war, something he famously warned his ExComm team not to do during the thirteen days of the crisis.
Thus Daniel’s interviews don’t actually display very much reconciliation between Kennedy and Castro. Their positions were likely to stay wide apart, and American hostility toward Cuba would have continued if Kennedy had lived to be re-elected. It might be a mistake to assume that Kennedy’s “peace offering” to Cuba and other perceived failures was enough to motivate a conspiracy to assassinate him.
Perhaps the most famous critique of Kennedy as the lost peacemaker is Noam Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot, written in 1993.[20] Chomsky contended that Kennedy only talked peace from a position of strength which he thought he had gained from “staring down” Khrushchev during the missile crisis. He wrote:

As for the internal record, it reveals only JFK’s advocacy of withdrawal after victory [in Vietnam] is secure, and exhortations to everyone to “focus on winning the war.” It reveals further that the failure of the Diem-Nhu regime to show sufficient enthusiasm for that task was a factor in the effort of JFK and his advisers to overthrow it, only enhanced by the Diem-Nhu gestures towards political settlement and the increasingly insistent calls for US withdrawal. These were regarded as a dangerous threat, not an opportunity to carry out the alleged intent to withdraw… It seems more than coincidental that fascination with tales of intrigue about Camelot lost reached their peak in 1992 just as discontent with all institutions reached historic peaks, along with a general sense of powerlessness and gloom about the future, and the traditional one-party, two-faction candidate-producing mechanism was challenged by a billionaire with a dubious past, a “blank slate” on which one’s favorite dreams could be inscribed. The audiences differ, but the JFK-Perot movements share a millenarian cast, reminiscent of the cargo cults of South Sea islanders who await the return of the great ships with their bounty. These developments tell us a good bit about the state of American culture at a time of general malaise, unfocused anger and discontent, and effective dissolution of the means for the public to become engaged in a constructive way in determining their fate.

As for the prospect that Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress offered much of an alternative to developing countries, Chomsky cites Stephen Rabe to make the point that in spite of the lofty rhetoric, the Alliance for Progress was accompanied by an increase in support for repressive regimes in Latin America:

Through its recognition policy, internal security initiatives, and military and economic aid programs, the [Kennedy] Administration demonstrably bolstered regimes and groups that were undemocratic, conservative, and frequently repressive. The short-term security that anti-Communist elites could provide was purchased at the expense of long-term political and social democracy.[21]

Christopher Hitchens, quoted previously, agreed with Chomsky that Kennedy was far from being “Camelot.” He was critical of Oliver Stone’s historical drama JFK for overlooking Kennedy’s connections to organized crime. Yet Oliver Stone seems to have altered his position since the film was made in 1991. In his documentary film and book The Untold History of the United States, coauthored with historian Peter Kuznick, the assessment of Kennedy is more inconclusive. They note the numerous domestic enemies Kennedy had made, but do not advance a theory about who killed him or why. They simply state that the killers and their motives may never be known. They also cite many of the contradictory statements made by Kennedy, before and after the October crisis, as he discussed his foreign policy and plans for Vietnam. These suggest Kennedy never gave up his personal belief that communism had to be defeated, and that he would not sacrifice political survival by giving up the anti-communist crusade—a stance which shifted blame to American voters. They note that he told journalist Charles Bartlett:

We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. We don’t have a prayer of prevailing there. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our tails out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to re-elect me. [22]

They go on to add:

In July 1963, [Kennedy] told a news conference that “for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia.” The fact that when he did discuss withdrawal, he made it contingent upon being able to depart victoriously, also fed the belief that he had no intention of changing course.[23]

Thus we can see that Oliver Stone, in a popular history textbook, softened the thesis he put forth in JFK (or at least refrained from stating it) that Kennedy was murdered because of his determination to end the Cold War and withdraw from Vietnam. However, the assassination still remains as a shattering event in history. If critics like Hitchens had a point in saying that the conspirators were merely organized crime figures, this would hardly be re-assuring. They would have needed help from government insiders, and the line between organized crime, the military industry and government agencies became completely blurred in any case. Today, almost no one believes there was no conspiracy. As time goes by fewer and fewer people believe the preposterous lone-gunman theory. 
JFK, the film, was, after all, entertainment, a Hollywood drama, not an academic study with pages of endnotes to support its hundreds of claims--claims that had to be told in fictional dialog written for the film. The value of the film was in the questions it raised for the public to pursue on its own accord. One of the great curiosities about JFK is that failed to receive even one positive review in the establishment media, yet it was favored with awards and financial success. Ironically, the propaganda campaign against the film supported the theory about media-government collusion put forward within it. 

Kennedy’s Indonesia Policy

From the back cover of The Incubus of Intervention: Conflicting Indonesia Strategies of John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles 

Sukarno was at the center of the conflict between John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles (Director of Central Intelligence) With the intention of removing Sukarno from power, Dulles’ strategy of ‘regime change,’ was well-advanced before Kennedy became president. Indeed, his career in intelligence had started even before Kennedy was born. In 1958, DCI Dulles was at the height of his power. He was not simply targeting the Outer Islands in Indonesia, but the entire Indonesian archipelago—including Netherlands New Guinea where the world’s largest gold deposit was located (and is today still being mined). Unlike Dulles, neither Kennedy nor Sukarno was aware of this El Dorado. But when the author interviewed Joseph Luns, the former Dutch Foreign Minister who became NATO Secretary-General, Luns said that he had asked the Americans involved to exploit the huge gold deposit jointly with the Dutch. It was their refusal, Luns said, that actually forced the Dutch out of New Guinea.
When Kennedy and Sukarno in 1963 resolved to work together, US foreign policy threatened to disrupt—unwittingly—Dulles’ own Cold War strategy which was focused on Indonesia. JFK’s wariness, after Allen Dulles’ role in the Bay of Pigs, drew a tongue-in-cheek but prophetic comment: “Domestic policy can only defeat us,” he used to say, “Foreign policy can kill us.”

A compelling and overlooked theory about the motives behind the Kennedy assassination can be found in Greg Poulgrain’s The Incubus of Intervention.[24] [25]This important study directs attention away from the common tropes about Cuba, Vietnam policy, mafia connections and compromised positions with mistresses to perhaps what was the largest but most neglected piece of the chessboard: the imminent triumph of socialism in Indonesia, a nation of 200 million that was the biggest domino likely to fall toward the socialist bloc. There is strong evidence that Kennedy was committed to a war in Vietnam, so one has to look elsewhere for a sharp divide between him and the security state, and this is what Greg Poulgrain’s research provides.
Kennedy was hoping to help Sukarno stay in power, in spite of his leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and his tolerance for the growing strength of the Indonesian communist party (PKI). In contrast, the CIA had plans to push Sukarno from power and move the country toward military dictatorship.
Poulgrain traces the root of the struggle over Indonesia back to the discovery in 1936 of massive deposits of gold (and later oil) in the Dutch colony of West Papua. Allen Dulles, who would later become head of the CIA, was instrumental in keeping these discoveries secret until issues of decolonization were settled after World War II and the resources could be placed under control of American corporations. To do this, he plotted to stop the Dutch from decolonizing the territory and transferring sovereignty to West Papuans. Instead, he wanted to help Indonesia to colonize the territory. It was ironic that Sukarno, and later Suharto, liked to fly the banner of their nation’s anti-colonial struggle over the Dutch but refused to acknowledge the Papuan claim for independence. The USSR was also trying to gain favor and influence in Indonesia, so it too did nothing in the United Nations to support West Papuan independence. The People’s Republic of China also had an interest in Indonesia, but it was not recognized at the UN until 1971.
During the 1950s, Dulles played a long, patient con to move Indonesia away from communism, which was a powerful and almost dominant force by the 1960s. He instigated rebellions in the outer islands and supplied the rebels with weapons as a strategy for de-stabilizing the country. This de-stabilization would provoke a hardline response, cause the military to reform and centralize its command, and weaken democracy and popular movements.
Kennedy came into this situation unaware of what Dulles had already been plotting for years. He warmed up to Sukarno just when Dulles was hoping to push the American president to support a coup to oust Sukarno. Kennedy wanted a program for Indonesia similar to his Alliance for Progress for South America while Dulles had other plans. One can speculate over whether Kennedy’s plan could have ever succeeded in deflating support for the PKI (the communist party) in Indonesia. Allen Dulles, like Castro, was probably perceptive enough to realize that it would never work. He must have believed that the PKI would say there was no middle ground, no kinder, gentler face for capitalist development. For Dulles, Kennedy’s plan was just interference in what he had been working on since the 1930s. The strategic importance of Indonesia was just too crucial to allow any risk of it drifting out of American control, or to risk the necessity of “another Vietnam”—sending American troops into another quagmire. Indonesia had vast natural resources, and shipping lanes through the region were important for the transport of oil from the Middle East. It was, arguably, more strategically important than Vietnam. Vietnam, in this sense, was important as the chosen battleground for stopping the spread of communism to more important regions.
There are conflicting theories about Kennedy’s efforts to reform the CIA. One view says that his firing of Allen Dulles in 1961 was a declaration of war with the security state which led to his assassination. The other view says that he never lost his enthusiasm for covert operations and merely wanted to change personnel and improve the CIA’s efficiency. Presidents Johnson and Nixon had similar or even worse antagonisms with the CIA, yet they were not assassinated. Nevertheless, Poulgrain suggests that Kennedy’s firing of Allen Dulles in 1961 jeopardized the agency’s long plan, going back to the 1930s, to put Indonesia’s and West Papua’s resources under American control. This difference over Indonesia policy thus becomes a plausible reason for which Kennedy was eliminated just before he was to make an important state visit to Indonesia to negotiate with Sukarno and confirm an assistance plan that was far different from what the CIA had in mind.
Within two years of Dulles being fired, Kennedy had been assassinated, and two years after that a pro-American military dictatorship had been installed in Indonesia. Many wild and fantastic descriptions of the famous coup of September 30, 1965 have circulated for years and have been used as justification for the anti-communist mass murders that occurred afterwards. The truth of the event seems to have been lost forever in rumors, conflicting accounts, disinformation, lies and biased exaggerations that served the propaganda needs of the new regime. Poulgrain makes clear, however, that the outcome was exactly what CIA director Allen Dulles worked toward ever since massive gold and oil reserves were discovered in West Papua in the 1930s. His goal was to make sure that West Papua would be absorbed by Indonesia and its resources would be given to American corporations (with the military junta given a cut of the profits), along with resources in the rest of Indonesia. This required the elimination of socialism and economic nationalism in Indonesia, and the defeat of Dutch attempts to lead its former colony in West Papua toward independence.
Poulgrain claims the evidence strongly suggests that the CIA backed Suharto, a relative outsider among the top generals, in a complex and duplicitous plot to encourage a small faction of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) to detain six generals who were suspected of plotting to overthrow Sukarno.[26] A coup by either left or right-leaning army factions seemed like a certainty during 1965, Indonesia’s famous “year of living dangerously.” Whoever acted first, the right or the left, would be able to say they were pre-empting an illegal takeover by the other side. Indeed, the leader, Colonel Untung, said the plan had been only to detain the six generals and bring them to Sukarno so that they could explain to his face whether they were planning a coup.[27] Along the way things got out of hand and they were murdered during the struggle to bring them to the palace.
Suharto was an unknown with no political experience, and no reputation for supporting particular policies. Poulgrain points to evidence that suggests Suharto was an outsider from the special forces who was backed by the CIA. He had personal contacts with the plotters that went back to the 1940s, and Poulgrain asserts that his plan was to encourage them by telling them he would protect them after they seized the generals. However, he intended to double-cross them, make sure the abducted generals were killed, seize power for himself, and terminate communist influence. He had even pre-arranged some aspects of the plan to destroy the PKI throughout the country. The deaths of the generals during their abduction eliminated his rivals in the military leadership and created an atrocity that would fuel the nation-wide rampage against communist party members. Poulgrain summed up his views in a long interview about his book in 2016:

Increasingly, as further evidence is compiled years after the event, Suharto is taking on the appearance of the Kostrad commander at the center of a web. He had made plans—even before the event occurred—to strike at the PKI for the events which occurred on the night of 30th Sept. And through Sjam he was able to ensure the kidnapping event ... was turned into the murder of the generals; ... Suharto ensured the event was turned into a tragedy of epic proportions, from which Indonesia has yet to recover.[28]

The new regime quickly circulated wild stories about the slow torture of the generals, with lurid descriptions of female communist torturers aroused to sadistic excesses in sex orgies and satanic rituals. An America broadcaster, NBC, repeated this narrative (fed to it by US and Indonesian government sources) unquestioningly in a 1967 documentary entitled Indonesia: the Troubled Victory.[29] Even though the lead reporter, Ted Yates, used the adjective “incredible” to describe the lurid details told about the coup, no doubts were raised about it being just a little too convenient as propaganda for the new regime.
Sukarno survived the coup and stayed on as figurehead leader for a few more years until his death in 1970 while Suharto turned the government into a military junta. Poulgrain wrote in the conclusion of his book:

The ultimate goal of regime change would have disappeared once Sukarno was really embedded as ‘president for life’ and this fact itself would have reversed decades of [Dulles’] planning on how to gain political access to the gold in Papua. Sukarno himself suggested that “Kennedy was killed precisely to prevent him from visiting Indonesia.” Well-known for grandiose rhetoric and design, this explanation of Sukarno’s may yet prove to be correct.[30]

After a genocide that purged one million communists party members (not armed militants) from the population, Indonesia was open for American business.[31] West Papua had been given to Indonesia in 1961 in a UN deal brokered by Kennedy, with its status to be ratified or rejected in a referendum held in 1969. The travesty of a referendum that occurred was held at gun-point, with only one thousand tribal leaders participating as delegates for the entire population. After the transfer to Indonesia, licenses for gold mines and oil fields were given to Western and Japanese corporations. The slow-motion genocide there continues to this day, as does the struggle for independence.[32]
Allen Dulles was one of the lead members of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy and concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There is still no conclusive evidence that conspirators within the US government killed Kennedy, and it has been argued above that Kennedy really did not change and would not have radically changed American foreign policy regarding Cuba, Latin America or Vietnam—not enough for him to have been targeted for assassination. However, it is worth exploring further the theory that he was killed because he inadvertently threatened to upset carefully laid plans to extract wealth from Indonesia and West Papua.
Alternatively, Kennedy may have been killed by enemies he had made in organized crime, but in any case the lone gunman theory does not hold up—something which is quite obvious to anyone who has visited the famous Dealy Plaza, site of the crime. According to the Warren Report, two bullets struck John F. Kennedy, and one of them was the “magic bullet” shot from behind that allegedly passed through Kennedy’s neck, and John Connally’s chest, wrist and knee. The magic bullet could have been shot by Oswald from his position in the book depository, but the other bullet that struck Kennedy in the right side of the head could not have been shot by Oswald. Witness testimony and the existing film show that Kennedy was shot by the second bullet from his right side, after the car turned the corner and was lined up beside the second shooter alleged to have been behind the white picket fence adjacent to Elm Street.


In the introduction to this paper, I wrote that it is difficult to for the generation who lived through Cold War to teach it to people who were born after it apparently ended in 1991. It is difficult to find a point of entry where learners can gain traction on the subject. It has been argued here that the years of the early and mid-1960s offer the best place to start. People learn best when there is a “good story” connecting the dry events of history, and the mysteries of the Kennedy assassination, his personal appeal, and controversies over his legacy provide good story in abundance. The nature of the entire Cold War period can be grasped by studying the enduring contradictions of Kennedy’s policies and actions, the mysteries surrounding his assassination, the planetary existential crisis of October 1962, and the tragic consequences for the globe that arose from both what Kennedy’s presidency achieved and what it didn’t achieve. The consequences are with us still. In late 1963, at a time when Kennedy had allegedly gone soft on communism, he maintained the anti-communist stance that he had had throughout his career, as he spoke of his responsibility to the “free world” and warned that “the nations of Latin America are not going to attain justice and progress… through communist subversion.”[33] In late September, 2018, another American president addressed the United Nations General Assembly, sounding much like John F. Kennedy with his stark warnings about the evils of socialism and communism, saying:

Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay. Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone.[34]

This statement, like so many others of its kind, obscures the role of reactionary wars in assuring that socialism leads to misery while it also overlooks the achievements of socialist states in lifting millions of people out of poverty.[35] Little has changed between the anti-communist statements of John F. Kennedy throughout his presidency, and those of Donald Trump at the United Nations, regardless of what one thinks about the differences in their character, eloquence and intelligence.

by Dennis Riches

September 30, 2018


[1]. Oliver Stone (director), JFK (Warner Brothers; 1991).
[2]. John Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (Warner Books, 1992).
[3]. Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (South End Press, 1993).
[5]. Nick Green (director), The Man who Saved the World (2012; PBS), 
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/the–man–who–saved–the–world–watch–the–full–episode/905/. This PBS documentary on the crisis, produced in 2012, still reflected an American bias, describing the Cubans as “smuggling” weapons into their own country.

[6]. “The Late Show,” BBC2 (date not given, probably 1991-92, near the time of the release of the film JFK). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYmyMJ0H6DQ&t=641s.
[7]. Errol Morris (director), “The Fog of War: transcript,” errolmorris.com, http://www.errolmorris.com/film/fow_transcript.html.
[8]. Nick Green, (director), The Man who Saved the World (2012; PBS), 
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/the–man–who–saved–the–world–watch–the–full–episode/905/. This PBS documentary on the crisis, produced in 2012, still reflected an American bias, describing the Cubans as “smuggling” weapons into their own country.

[10]. Sheldon M. Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality (Stanford University Press, 2012), 142.

[12]. Sheldon M. Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality, 158.

[13]. Noam Chomsky, “Why the Rest of the World No Longer Wants to be Like U.S.,” Alternet, November 5, 2013. http://www.alternet.org/world/chomsky–who–wants–be–us. Chomsky cites a famous statement by American statesman Dean Acheson made to the American Society of International Law in 1962: “No legal issue arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its power, position, and prestige.”

[14]. ICAN, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, provides information in several languages, but all of them are Western European, Turkish being the only exception. No information is provided on their website in Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. The leadership is also entirely from Western Europe. Membership is open to NGOs from anywhere, but these signs indicated that the group does not have universal reach or appeal, particularly in Russia and China. http://www.icanw.org/campaign/structure-and-people/.

[16]. Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Publishing, 2012). See pages 196-198.
[17]. John F. Kennedy, “Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress.” The American Presidency Project, March 13, 1962, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9100.
[18]. Jean Daniel, “Unofficial Envoy: An Historic Report from Two Capitals,” The New Republic, December 14, 1963,15-20. Published online at: https://ratical.org/ratville/JFK/UnofficialEnvoy.html.
[19]. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (Harper and Brothers, 1955). Ted Sorensen was later credited as the ghostwriter.
[20]. Noam Chomsky, “Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture, (South End Press, 1993). Full text available online at https://zcomm.org/rethinking-camelot/.
[21]. Stephen Rabe in Thomas G. Paterson, Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford University Press, 1989).
[22]. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, 315.  
[23]. Ibid., 315.
[24]. Greg Poulgrain, The Incubus of Intervention: Conflicting Indonesia Strategies of John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles (Petaling Jaya, Malyasia: Strategic Information and Research Development Center, 2015).
[26]. Ibid.
[27]. Coen Holzappel, “The role of Suharto in the Indonesian genocide of 1965,” Colloque “Les violences de masses en Indonésie (1965-1966) et la question de la reconciliation,” Centre Asie du sud-est (CASE), January 19, 2016, https://youtu.be/O9r2h-gUQP8.

[30]. Greg Poulgrain, The Incubus of Intervention, 247.

[31]. Jim Naureckas, “No, US Didn’t ‘Stand By’ Indonesian Genocide–It Actively Participated,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, October 18, 2017, http://fair.org/home/no-us-didnt-stand-by-indonesian-genocide-it-actively-participated/. See also note 29. The transcript of this documentary describes the gruesome details of this genocide as a victory for US foreign policy, but a “troubled one” that stings the conscience just a little.

[35]. Caleb Maupin, “Caleb Maupin calls out Professor who is clueless about Marxism,” September 2018, https://youtu.be/YpXgsqBpbnY. See also https://www.calebmaupin.com/pages/biogrphy-caleb-maupin. In this brief video, Caleb Maupin reviews the achievements of the USSR, The People’s Republic of China, and Cuba in industrialization, economic growth, and provision of social necessities such as employment, housing, health care and education.

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