Purchased a FORA.tv video on another website? Login here with the temporary account credentials included in your receipt.
Good evening and welcome to this night's meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California. I am Jerry Lubenow; I am editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Press at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California. And it's my pleasure tonight to introduce our distinguished speaker David Talbot founder and editor in chief of Salon, and author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. David Talbot is been hailed by the New York Times as a Hailed as a "pioneer of online journalism" for his creation of Salon. But before he invited invaded cyber space, Talbot worked as a senior editor for Mother Jones magazine and as a Features Editor for the San Francisco Examiner. He has written for the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and other publications as well. In his new book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, Talbot tells a compelling tale of the Kennedy administration from the perspective of the tight inner circle of men who served the president. But more than that, it is a gripping story of two brothers working together, sharing an unprecedented bond and of Robert Kennedy's wrenching secret search to track down JFK's killer before his own assassination. Talbot's revealing revisionist history is based on over a 150 interviews with Kennedy, administration insiders, friends and family, as well as newly released government documents. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome David Talbot Thank you Jerry and thank you to the Commonwealth Club for inviting me to come out this evening, and thank you to all of you for joining me tonight. My book Brothers has stirred controversy for the most parts because of the point of view that I take or rather that Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States as I document. Took, on the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy. But I would rather not spend most of our time together tonight talking about President Kennedy in death, I would like to talk about, if I could this evening, as he was in life the living JFK because once again ofcourse we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential cycle, a presidential season. When many different candidates are striving to lay claim to that charismatic mantle and we see this of course every four years. Ted Sorenson in fact, JFK's eloquent speech writer and this week's New Republic suggests that Barrack Obama might be the next JFK. Others have said, even Mitt Romney puts them in mind of President Kennedy a Massachusetts politician, from a political dynasty with controversial religious affiliation. This morning we see in Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times that even her sister thought W was the next JFK, when he first began campaigning for president. But I would like to talk about who President Kennedy was because that's again as I say a source of contention every four years and it's still being thrashed out by historians. Was JFK a cold war Hawk as the Washington establishment? And even as left wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and others have insisted over the years. Or was he a warrior for peace, as I argue in my book and in the recent cover story in time magazine that I wrote. The confusion begins in some way just with Kennedy himself who was a politically complex man, whose speeches often brandished eras as well as all of branches. In the 1960 campaign for president, Kennedy succeeded in out-muscling his republican rival Richard Nixon on such foreign policy issues as Cuba and the "missile gap". But the same time he insisted that we should negotiate with our enemy with the Soviet Union. In his inaugural address in 1961, Kennedy wave to "pay any price, bare any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any further to assure the survival and success of liberty". But he also dispensed with the normal soviet bashing rhetoric of the day and invited our enemy to join us in a new quote "quest for peace" before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all of humanity. You sense a visceral disgust with the young Jack Kennedy with war and a distrusted of military authority, as a young naval officer serving in the pacific in world war two; he wrote home all war is stupid. Joe Kennedy his older brother's tragic death in that war, he later wrote to a friend turned my father and brother and sisters and I upside down and sucked all the oxygen at of our smug 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 given I think Kennedy's reputation in later years was "god like", "invincible" and so on with Kennedy's family sense of entitlement in all of that. But contrast is humble and I think war ravaged experience, with a smug self confidence of our the current administration with our President, Vice President. Men who never served their country in battle, but are still supremely certain of their divine obligation to send other men and women, children to their deaths. The Bay of Pigs I believe was the first and irreversible rupture in the Kennedy administration. That operation on April 1961, with the CIA mounted an expedition of Cuban emigrants to invade Cuba and trying to take back the island from Fidel Castro and his regime. This is the point I believe at which the Kennedy administration, the inner circle, the band of brothers, JFK - his brother and their closest advisors became pitted against - what President Eisenhower had called the "military industrial complex". These men, the planners of the Bay of Pigs and the CIA and the Pentagon thought Kennedy was not entitled to the full truth before the operation. They withheld key information from him. And they believed that when push came to shove and they knew inevitably that their the the band of invaders would get pinned down on the beaches that Kennedy would be forced to cave in to their pressure and send in the full might of the US military, the marines and the air force. There is a very dramatic scene that I write about in my book that happens in the midst of this fiasco. It's late at night at the White House. President Kennedy is been in the reception in the east room after a congrssional reception. He is still in black tails and white 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 the Bay of Pigs operation frantically comes to the white house at his last effort to try and persuade the President to change his mind and descend into escalate the Bay of Pigs into a full scale war in Cuba. He and Admiral Arleigh Burke who is head of the navy, pleaded with the president to change his mind. But he to their amazement stands his ground and doesn'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 Kennedy had done was almost criminal". Admiral Burke said "he was a very bad president". He permitted himself to jeopardize the nation. Allan Dulles head of the CIA pointed to Kennedy's court failure of nerve. He said "JFK was surrounded by doubting Thomas's and admirers of Castro. Kennedy in turn of course was equally furious and he turned his fury 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 in control 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 and intelligence circles at this point. It was an amazing period really as I went back over this time and in my research and interviewed people in the administration and others went through the documents because the picture that emerges of the Kennedy administration is one that is really not than fully reflected in other history books or biographies. It's really a government at war with itself. It's Rome, ancient Rome on the Potomac. The level of intrigue, attention of suspicions within Washington circle is just palpable. You have a growing and very bold far right in America that's coalescing around the future candidacy of 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 and commander of the 24th infantry a frontline division in West Germany. Walker openly vilified Kennedy and all other liberals. He distributed the political propaganda to his troops. He advised them how to vote. He thought that Eleanor Stevenson - Adlai - Eleanor Roosevelt rather Adlai Stevenson, Harvard University in Mad Magazine were all part of the communist conspiracy. Some people say that's true then I heard that in the audience. He might have had a point at least about Mad Magazine. There were anti-communist Christian rallies throughout the country that were attended by officers military officers uniformed officers in defiance of the law. And in defiance of the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara's explicit orders. When McNamara and the Kennedy administration tried to climb down on this growing political fervor within the military ranks. There allies, the military's allies on capital hill specifically Strom Thurmond and others held hearings on the "the muzzling of the military." There were generals like Curtis LeMay, head of the air force. Meanwhile who were openly calling for preemptive nuclear war on the Soviet Union. And at Washington dinner party in Georgetown one evening in 1961, he stunned his dinner mate who happened to be the wife of a US senator by predicting bravely that the US and the Soviet Union would be engaged in all that nuclear war by the end of the year. And he advised her to take her children and grandchildren at west somewhere in tumbleweed territory to avoid being obliterated. Arthur Schlesinger the esteemed historian who recently passed told me in an interview I did for the book. We were certainly not in control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. John Seigenthaler former natural newspaper man, publisher of the Tennessean who was a devoted Kennedy man - was the number two man in the justice department under Robert Kennedy his right hand man told me the CIA were never brought under the Kennedy's control. We were to "we were trying to find our way out of 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 and find the source of leaks about the Berlin crisis that's building towards a nuclear confrontation. Again Kennedy feels that his own military commanders were outside of his control. He was good friends - Kennedy - with the Hollywood film maker John Frankenheimer. 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 that painted a scenario on which the US military attempts a coup in Washington. And attempts to overthrow a piece of minded president. Fletcher Knebel the author of the book co author of the book said that he was - "the idea came to him after interviewing Curtis LeMay in hearing his traitorous talk about the president - President Kennedy. JFK thought it was so important that this book reached as widen as possible that he went to his friend in Hollywood, John Frankenheimer the director of "The Manchurian Candidate" another cold war thriller that was of great interest to Kennedy. And he persuaded Frankenheimer to make this into a movie. In fact turned over the White House to him while 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 with these rising tensions and conflicts within the administration. And Cuba is the eye of this storm. Cuba could have been the Iraq of its day. Enormous pressures on Kennedy to confront the enemy somewhere in the world, and Cuba was the first choice. The Kennedy's were forced adopt an aggressive posture for that reason on Cuba, but I believe by enlarge what they did was mostly for show. In the book I analyzed their program Operation Mongoose which many people have conflated with the assassination programs aimed at Fidel Castro, but that's simply not the case. Operation Mongoose was run by a former adman named Ed Landsdale. And it was mostly for show. He came up with some cock-eyed schemes and today these stabilizes the Cuban government at one point suggesting that US naval ships shoot off starbursts above the island and strike terror into the hearts of the Catholic population who would then be moved to rise up against the godless Castro and over throw him. That one never got off the ground. But in the meantime while the Kennedy's are making a show of trying to go after Castro and destabilize him with what they are really doing is something more interesting. I think they are trying to find another path. And throughout the administration, they send out various peace feelers to Castro. At one point in the form of New York Attorney named Jim Donavan - very interesting guy who goes down there with a Bobby Kennedy guide from the justice department, John Nolen and engages in interesting series of discussions with with 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 Castro a wet suit because they know that he loves to dive. And they actually go to Abercrombie Fitch to get this wet suit. John Nolen later when he was watching TV, flash forward now to the 1970s, the church committee was stunned to hear that this wet suit apparently then became part of a CIA plot on being on to both him and Jim Donavan that it was it was poisoned with toxins that were suppose to then be delivered to Castro and assassinate him. He was ofcourse stunned when he realized that the CIA had attempted to do this. At least I hovered an ABC news women, another point hooks up with Kennedy man at the UN. A diplomat namely Maywood and also was carrying out interesting back channel negotiations with Fidel Castro. And I go into a story that I think is fascinating about how Dick Goodwin who was Kennedy's point man on Cuba and Latin America for a while. And help develop the alliance for progress programs. How he met secretly with Che Guevara after after a conference in Uruguay. And later caused quite a storm back at home. So the truth about John Kennedy is very interesting that well he 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 an artful diplomatic dancer. He knew that most of his own government was out of his control. Including the state department, the Pentagon, the CIA. Often he was the only man in the room who was looking for the peaceful solutions to various crisis and Laos in Vietnam and Berlin and Cuba. He really becomes a much greater figure a heroic figure in my eyes as a result of this. I think lost in the sort of the gassy Chamelot mythology and then the revisionism, the back lash against the Kennedy's and against JFK in particular in a decadent prince. Is this heroism, this most substantial heroism as I see it. A president who had the stamina, the intelligence, the back bone to stand up to some of the most powerful forces in American political life. And say no to them and he was being pushed relentlessly again and again to go to war. I came across a fascinating document a national intelligence estimate document from 1962 about what have happened if the US had invaded, launched a full scale military invasion of Cuba. And it's fasting because of course it has here the echoes of what we saw many years later. The CIA predicted that if we did this our troops would cut quickly through Castro's forces and march victoriously on to arena But at that point we would get blocked down in a long and bloody occupation. The Cuban people and the reminisce of Castro's forces would grow restive and angry. Would launch attacks on US troop. They would 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 that reads eerily like what happened with her act today. I think JFK was aware of this. JFK was 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 Boston Globe by Ted Widmer. The 50th anniversary of a speech that Kennedy gave in the senate on the problem of Algeria which was then ofcourse war resisting French the French occupation. He rose to deliver that speech on July 2nd 1957. Ted Widmer writes in the globe. And he began with the ragging statement. Kennedy said the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism. Neither the H-Bomb nor the guided missile. It's man's eternal desire to be free and independent. Hardly anyone would agree with that would disagree with that Widmer points out But Kennedy continued with a provocative thought that imperialism, as Kennedy said was the chief foe of freedom and that the western form of imperialism was very nearly as bad as the Soviet version. By emphasizing America's desire to spread freedom in the middle east, he couldn't have sounded more or like today's Neo-conservative architects of the Iraq wars, Widmer points out by stressing the impossibility of spreading freedom through force however Kennedy could not have sounded more different. From the moment he spoke on Algeria, Widmer continues. It was no longer possible to dismiss John Kennedy as a Callow young man whose office had been brought for him by his father. The canard that was widely circulated at that time with his Algeria speech Kennedy proved himself a serious foreign policy thinker and a most viable candidate for the highest office in the land. So Kennedy's philosophy on this goes back to his days in the senate. Through out his administration, these clashes between Kennedy and his hard lines continue through the even in domestic crisis like old myths when James Meredith tries to become the first black student to enroll at the university of Mississippi and sets off an enormous conflagration on the campus that night. There is a thin line of federal marshals who quickly have been scrambled and sent down to the campus to trying to protect Meredith there is a white mob screaming for his head, trying to lynch him. The blood is flowing, many people are shot and wounded that night. The - two people die and the Kennedys and we now know this because that night was all taped by the White House taping system - are absolutely frantic to get the military to move. To rescue the federal Marshalls and to make sure that Meredith isn't lynched. And they can't understand why the army isn't moving more quickly hours go by and the unit is still haven't been mobilized and when you hear them they bring up the novel again "Seven days in May". Is this a mutiny? Is the military resisting? Is it defying our orders? So this was very much on the minds of the Kennedys in fact the number of times in which John Kennedy discusses the prospect of a violent end to his administration either through assassination or coup of some sort is remarkable. But despite this, he soldiered on and he delivered I think some of the most important speeches of the century. Speeches that in some cases are lost or forgotten but should be remembered and taught. I think in class rooms throughout America. It's the speech for instance that Kennedy gives on his tour 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". That we are only six percent of the world's population, that we can not impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind. Excuse me, that we can not write every wrong or reverse each adversity. And that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world 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 later in June 1963. In which he said that "we might find our enemy's beliefs quite profoundly repugnant to our own. But we must still talk to them. We must recognize our common humanity. He said we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal. This state of course to I think when the first great diplomatic breakthroughs with the soviet union, the limited test ban treaty soon afterwards. So when Hillary Clinton attacks Barrack Obama, she did recently after the debates for being naÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¯ve for declaring that he will talk directly to our enemies if he is elected president with no preconditions. This is not a fabricated controversy as Barrack tried to dismiss this. It goes to the very heart of where the America's role should be in the world today. This is a national discussion that President Kennedy began nearly 50 years ago. It was aborted by his assassination. And America as a result has gone down a path of imperial sorrows. To use Chalmers Johnson's term. As Johnson has written, "empires inevitably corrupt and degrade democracies." There is fragility to democracies if you read history that I think the Kennedys were all well too aware of. Kennedys were great readers of history of course and Bobby Kennedy was a particular fan of Edith Hamilton's book "The Greek Way" on the fleeting beauty of of the great Athenian democracy. You see this corruption process. The censorious process that worked during Kennedy's era. No one was a better student a keen observer of the dark side of American power, then our attorney general Robert Kennedy the president's younger brother and devoted protector. And Bobby thought one of the most alarming developments of his day was how legitimate authority, how government, politicians, unions, businesses. Were being corrupted by their affiliations with some of the darker forces and the criminal underworld. And he became a crusader against us this as also a senator investigator in the 1950s with the senator rackets committee. And then as attorney general, he was particularly alarmed I believe when he was 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 called family jewels that the Kennedys approved these assassination efforts, approved getting into bed with the mafia. But I think nothing could be furthered from the truth. This was anathema to everything that Robert Kennedy stood for as John Seigenthaler and others pointed out. And of course the CIA and and the people who take the CIA's point of view on this debate, never were able to provide evidence that the Kennedys did in fact approve 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 her that he knew the Kennedy weren't behind the attempts on his life. And ofcourse one of the reasons why Fidel Castro is still alive today is because he was very successful in infiltrating those 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, or Latin 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 liquidate threats from dissident political leaders or business figures or journalists to the centers of power in these countries. Well this is precisely what Robert Kennedy thought it happened to his brother on the afternoon of November 22nd 1963. This is how my book begins tells 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 his brother. And he was determined to regain power. Get back to the white house to bring his brother's killers to justice and to resume JFK's policies of peace. Bobby Kennedy remarkably communicated his conclusions about Dallas directly to the Soviet Union a week after the assassination. Assuring the soviet officials that both he and Jackie and Kennedy family did not blame them for the murder of JFK even though that's the way that Lee Harvey Oswald the alleged assassin was being portrayed in the US media as a communist sympathesizer. So when men like Attorney Vincent Bugliosi stand before esteemed organizations like this. And argue that the case is closed. He is simply playing fast and loose with the truths with the historical truth. The political lead in this country as well as the American people never believed the official version of the assassination of John Kennedy. Not Robert Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson, not even members of the Warren commission itself. Not Richard Nixon, not members of the church committee in house elect committee on assassinations which did the best government investigative work into the crime in Dallas. When crimes against democracy like both Kennedy assassinations are allowed to go unsolved, it poisons the heart and soul of a nation. It raises the haunting thought that anything might be possible in the darker corners of our democracy. When dark forces what dark forces will progressive our presidents in the future phase. The military industrial complex, 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 in American history men and authority are talking about an emergency without foreseeable end. Such men are crack pot realists. In the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own. Still rings true today. The American people have a right to their history. The CIA is still stone walling on 1000s of pages irrelevant documents about the assassination of President Kennedy in direct defiance of the 1991 JFK act. And first and foremost we must set a historical record straight on the real John F Kennedy and his presidency. At the height of the cold war John Kennedy found a way to inch back from the nuclear principles. Under relentless pressure to go to war he kept the peace. He talked to his enemies. He recognized the limits of the American power. He understood that our true power came from our democratic ideals. Not our military prowess. He is still a man ahead of his time. Thank you very much.