Seymour Hersh, THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT
Little, Brown and Co.; 1997; 498 pages, $26.96
By David R. Wrone (CAPITAL TIMES OF MADISON, WI, 16 January 1998).
In an interview given on publication of his alleged expose of John F. Kennedy's private life and public policies, the famed investigative reporter Sy Hersh said he wanted to make "a big score" and retire.
To this end the Pulitzer prize winner has prostituted his nation's history and, at the same time, sustained the intelligence and military forces that bitterly opposed JFK--those who among other infamies sunk us in Vietnam and who tried and failed to initiate nulcear war over Cuba. Hersh does it with a corruption of scholarship perhaps unequalled in recent times.
He uses not a single source note, but employs caption notes that refer to many books and no pages, so a reader cannot easily check his truthfulness. Hersh has corrupted the facts. On major issues he is coy, strongly using suggestive language with a statement of fact where none exists. Sources are often made up to fit his perceived beliefs. In addition he relies on interviews with people bitterly opposed to JFK's policies and usually not identified as such.
Hersh reviews JFK's rise to power and then largely concentrates on the foreign policies of his presidency, alleging that the crude principles of his reckless and corrupt personal life--astutely masked during his lifetime by his power and friends--led the United States into one disaster after the other.
Hersh suffuses the book with putative accounts of JFK's sex scampers but these are a honey trap to snare a reader into accepting Hersh's false presentation of his foreign policy--which is the true intent of the book.
How bad is Hersh's scholarship? Consider the Section of THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT in which Hersh states that JFK "endorsed" the CIA assassination of Lumumba of the Congo. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since CIA thugs beat Lumumba to death on January 17 and JFK was sworn in on January 20, Hersh must overcome a serious chronologial problem. He does this by baldly asserting Kennedy vigorously supported and emphatically agreed to Eisenhower's policy to kill the African leader.
Hersh carries this subterfuge off by only quoting former CIA men who were ideologically opposed to JFK's policies, by refusing to cite the copious well-known record affirming an opposite interpretation, and by not interviewing the numerous individuals who would have provided a true picture.
Early in January 1961, Kenedy's staff and special Congo study group had alerted the CIA that American reactionary policies in the Congo would change and that a JFK emissary had warned Belgium intelligence services not to "liquidate" Lumumba. By February 2, Kennedy had devised a plan for a new Congo policy that would ultimately include Lumumba. He did not learn of the murder of Lumumba until February 13; a famous photograph depicts him receiving the news, his head bowed in anguish.
Hersh also devotes much attention to "proving" JFK tried to assassination Castro using the CIA and Mafia. In the course of this effort, he asserts that President Kennedy used Judy Exner, a sex partner, to carry cash to the mob bosses to pay for making the hit.
A key document of the Castro murder attempts is a 1962 Department of Justice memorandum by the CIA's inspector general Sheffield Edwards. Hersh uses parts of the document in other contexts, but when he comes to the attempts on Castro's life he carefully omits what it says about them, since the document's contents would destroy his framing of JFK.
The CIA-Mafia attempts on Castro began in August 1960 and ended in November 1960, before JFK took office in 1961. Only six people knew of it, all CIA men, and they only orally. No one else knew--not Ike, not JFK--until many months after the fact when the FBI stumbled onto a bungled CIA phone tap for a mobster and it exposed the affair. A shocked Robert Kennedy ordered a complete explanation.
As it turns out, the CIA had set aside $150,000 for the job, but the Mafia said no and refused to accept any money. EXner could not have carried money, as she told Hersh; there was none to carry and the affair had occurred and was over before he entered office. There were, in fact, no JFK directed or encouraged attempts on Castro's life.
Hersh frequently castigates JFK for using private back channels to negotiate a secret deal with Khruschev to end the Cuba missile crisis--a deal Hersh suggests Kennedy pursued in order to improve his standing with the American people. The fact is back channels worked and, after the crisis, the executive branch institutionalized it with direct phone lines and other systems, which later presidents have found to be quite useful.
The real reason JFK kept the pact secret was spelled out in Khrushchev's memoirs, KHRUSHSCHEV REMEMBERS, and in Robert Kennedy's writings on the subject. It had nothing to do with self-promotion. The Kennedys were intensely afraid of an American military coup d'etat and overthrow of the U.S. govenment accompanied by a launching of a massive nuclear strike against the whole of the communist world. Only through this private method could and did JFK hold the irate military in check.
It can be argued today that nuclear war was avoided by President Kennedy's unparalleled action.
Even in the minor themes of THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT, Hersh perverts our history. He states a high-ranking Navy officer told him that, "at the request of Robert Kennedy", the notes containing vital information about JFK's postmortem were not published. By exclusively relying on that prejudiced source, Hersh sustains the generation-old effort of many federal officials to blame the failed inquiry into JFK's death upon his brother's refusal to give them access to key medical records.
But in well-known sources, which were spurned by Hersh, we know RFK by letter gave explicit permission to use all autopsy materials. The same definitive sources also show it was the FBI that, after realizing the materials might hold data incompatible with its invented lone assassin theory, manufactured the libel that Robert Kennedy had denied access.
Significantly, prosecutors did take the critical notes. They were not destroyed and were, in fact, placed in Navy hands. They were released by the Navy for Arlen Specter, Warren Commission counsel, who used them to examine the autopsy doctors. They were supposed to be part of Exhibit 397 of the Warren Commission, but it does not contain them. They are not in any archive or known agency files. On this serious issue--which genuinely is worthy of discussion--Hersh is embarrassingly silent.
DAVID R. WRONE taught history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for thirty years before retiring in 1994. One of his primary areas of academic specialty was the presidency and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.