- - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE POLITICS OF DECEPTION: JFK’S SECRET DECISIONS ON VIETNAM, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND CUBA By Patrick. J. Sloyan

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 320 pages

This riveting book is a compelling read not only for correcting a much-mythologized era, but also for reminding us of the harsh and often crass realities that influence all our presidents when they get blindsided by the unintended consequences of their acts.

Author Patrick J. Sloyan is a reporter’s reporter. In a 40-year career that spanned covering the White House for United Press International and the First Gulf War for Newsday, Mr. Sloyan collected a shelf of journalism press awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1992.

With dogged persistence, scrupulous archival work and firsthand interviews, he has turned on its ear the sanitized history of the last year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. He started with the long-awaited release by the Kennedy Presidential Library of hours of audio discs of the secret tape recordings JFK ordered during crucial Oval Office policy decisions taken during those fraught 11 months. He then searched through other presidential archives for the oral histories stored there by other Kennedy aides and tracked down a number of the key participants who were still extant long decades later.

It is not a pretty story, but it resonates. Mr. Sloyan’s conclusions offer no comfort to haters of the fictional Kennedy Camelot nor to the still-thriving industry of the JFK hagiographers, but they explain why seemingly intelligent men do such stupid things when they become president.

The Jack Kennedy that emerges from this skillful narrative is intelligent and well-intentioned but, as with others before and since, it is what he doesn’t know he doesn’t know that makes him so vulnerable to the conflicts among his top advisers. Many of these now-historic figures — Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and Averell Harriman to name two — were not above shading the facts they proffered the president.

Like most first-term presidents, Kennedy began his third year in office distracted by gloomy opinion polls and the need to focus on the logistics of the next year’s re-election bid. While he basked in an almost slavish adoration by the Washington press corps, journalists and newspapers outside the access bubble routinely jarred him and his political advisers — especially brother Robert Kennedy — with uncomfortable revelations of the administration’s missteps. The culture of trying to “spin” the news — which dates back to the first Washington administration — soon morphed into a willingness to outright deceive both reporters and the voters.

As the book’s title suggests, three intruding policy challenges kept both the president and his team off-balance during those final hectic months and led them into a series of dubious decisions that have been masked until now by the Kennedy myth machine, but the consequences of which burden us to this very day.

By the start of 1963, Kennedy and his advisers were caught in a web of troubles that had ensnared them from his first days in office. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of two years earlier had stung. Worse, its legacy was to convince Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that JFK was weak enough to permit him to station ballistic missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba with impunity. Since then, historians have concluded that Khrushchev was not trying to spark a war with the United States, but rather to neutralize JFK while he used his stooge Fidel Castro to extend Soviet influence among other susceptible Latin American governments.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 brought the two superpowers to the edge of nuclear war but Mr. Sloyan documents that the Russian withdrawal was not due to Kennedy’s statesmanship but to a secret deal to remove U.S. missiles from bases in Turkey. The Kennedy brothers also set in motion the sometimes lunatic schemes to assassinate Castro that would only end with Kennedy’s own murder.

In the midst of this missile crisis, the president became increasingly annoyed at the impatience growing among key civil rights leaders that he honor campaign promises to push desegregation and voting rights legislation through a recalcitrant Congress. The threat of a massive protest march on Washington prompted both Kennedys to set in motion FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s program of gathering blackmail material against the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Most significantly, the third crisis at the time looked the least serious. Dating back to the 1950s, when Kennedy first came to the U.S. Senate, he had had close personal ties to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, devout Catholic, celibate, and ruthless in his resistance to Japanese occupation during World War II and the subsequent efforts of France to restore their colonial hold. In the Senate, fervent anti-communists, including Kennedy friend, Sen. Mike Mansfield, had pressed a cautious Eisenhower administration to provide more support to Diem as the only credible alternative to Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.

By 1963, JFK’s Asia policy advisers at the State Department and the Pentagon increasingly despaired of Diem’s capacity to win a war against North Vietnam or to even hold onto power in the South. His crackdown on Buddhist opponents prompted a horrible backlash when a venerable Buddhist bishop set fire to himself in protest, a spectacle duly captured and reprinted across the world’s leading newspapers.

Mr. Sloyan leads us through the suspenseful and tragic decisions by JFK to foment a coup to remove Diem that led to his brutal assassination. White House loyalists at once began to sweep any traces of the president’s personal role in that murder, but this book lays it all bare in disturbing detail.

There is good reason for many Americans to suspect they are not told the full truth by their elected leaders. This solid, accessible narrative shows us how easy it seems for our leaders to outright lie to us and then leave us to the consequences.

James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).


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