Wednesday, March 2, 2011

For One Brief Shining Moment...

No male was closer to President Kennedy [right] than his brother, Robert Kennedy [left]. JFK named RFK as his Attorney-General in December 1960 during the presidential transition, which led to much hue and cry about nepotism. RFK's persona as Attorney General was a far cry from the one he maintained during his 1968 presidential campaign.

Today comes news - shocking to no one - that in 1961 during a 'fact-finding' mission for his brother in Chile, Ted Kennedy rented a brothel for an evening for a finding of facts of another kind. While that certainly wouldn't have raised an eyebrow with President Kennedy, 50 years later the news about the then-29-year old younger Kennedy is about as welcome in Camelot as one of JFK's numerous battles with syphilis.

It is a timely story, too, because it is just the latest - albeit unwanted - news item 'celebrating' the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's inauguration. The story also explains why the Kennedys have been reticent to allow access to 54 crates of records from the Kennedy presidency that sit stacked in a vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The crates are individually sealed and labeled, and are so closely guarded that even the library director - Thomas J. Putnam - is prohibited from taking a peek.

God only knows what treasure troves await historians in those boxes. They include some of the most important records of Cold War history: diaries, notes, phone logs, messages, trip files, and other documents from Robert F. Kennedy’s service as U.S. Attorney General. They include details about RFK's roles in the Cuban missile crisis and as coordinator of covert efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

In this anniversary year, the battle between the library and the Kennedy family has come out in the open. So far, the Kennedys have refused to grant permission for researchers to freely review the crates and their contents.

Not surprisingly, historians - a prickly group of anti-social misfits to begin with - are miffed. "The RFK papers are among the most valuable, untapped archival resources of foreign policy and domestic history left to be excavated," Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, told the Boston Globe last month. Kornbluh has been told to sod off several times in his attempts to gain access to the papers. "This history is immediately relevant to the ongoing debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba," he added. "I look forward to the day — hopefully sooner than later — that access to the RFK papers contributes to advancing that debate."

Don't hold your breath, Pete.

Access to the papers is tightly controlled by Robert Kennedy’s ninth child, Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, a lawyer designated by his mother, Ethel, to take on the responsibility. In a written response to Globe questions via email, Max Kennedy denied that access to the papers is closed, saying he has "selectively granted full access" to prominent biographers, including Evan Thomas and Robert Dallek. While I'm a big fan of Thomas and have read every one of the works of Dallek, both of them have also been accused by other historians of being Kennedyphiles.]

Max Kennedy also wrote, "There are many requests to see them, and frankly, many of those requests come from people with poorly-conceived projects. It is my responsibility, as custodian of the papers, to grant use responsibly." Of course, what the Kennedy family considers 'poorly-conceived projects' may be a bit biased. Kennedy, however, also wrote, "That does not mean that every book must be cloyingly positive; I do not think that for a moment, and I would be doing a disservice to my father if I acted that way. But I do believe that historians and journalists must do their homework, and observe the correct procedures for seeking permission to consult the papers, and explain their projects."

The JFK Library itself would like to make the documents available, director Putnam said, but current law stipulates that it must first get a signed deed from RFK’s heirs before the documents can be made widely available. "We are still in long-term negotiations with [the Kennedy family] to get that deed," said Putnam, who is an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration, which would be responsible for reviewing the records to protect information that could harm national security. "We can’t fully process papers that we don’t own."

Now, let me say here that I happen to revere both JFK and RFK - flaws and all. JFK had the good fortune - as morbid as that sounds - to die long before most of the secrets of his private life and medical maladies were known. And RFK had the good fortune to live long enough to overcome and rise above his image as an angry unscrupulous strong-armed enforcer for his older brother to become a champion of civil rights and social programs, and as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.

It is that 1968 image that RFK's family seeks to preserve. The RFK of 1968 is not in those boxes, however. Instead, it is the 1961-1963 RFK who abused power and broke laws in an effort to assassinate Castro and project what he deemed to be the interests of President Kennedy - at any cost.

"Obviously this was not the sort of thing [Robert Kennedy] wanted to come out," Sheldon Stern, former director of the Kennedy library’s American History Project, told the Globe. "The Kennedys are especially sensitive about this stuff."

The papers are so closely guarded that they were never fully shared with government investigators after JFK's assassination. They are part of a trove of documents that RFK ordered removed from the White House in the first few hours after his brother's death. Indeed, by the time President Johnson returned to Washington with the body of President Kennedy, the documents were gone. They were shielded from the Warren Commission and subsequent congressional inquiries into Cold War era intelligence activities for the last 50 years.

For those unfamiliar with the history, after John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, he chose his younger brother Robert to be Attorney General. Robert Kennedy had ruthlessly - and successfully - run his brother's presidential campaign and was JFK's most trusted adviser and confidant. As Attorney General, RFK took on an especially prominent role in White House decision-making and foreign policy - not spheres for the nation’s top law enforcement least in the previous 180+ years of the government's history.

The known details of RFK's most controversial activities begin after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 when JFK put him in charge of secret efforts to undermine the communist government in Cuba, including Operation Mongoose, the CIA-led effort to assassinate Castro or topple his government.

"Operation Mongoose was a covert operation to destabilize the Cuban government and [RFK] was the person in charge,’’ Philip Brenner, a professor at American University, told the Globe. "It is very unusual for an Attorney General to be in charge of an international covert operation."

Today, Robert Kennedy’s own Deputy Attorney General, Nicholas D. Katzenbach [who succeeded him as Attorney General in the Johnson Administration], said he believes the records should not be treated any differently than other government documents from the time. "I am with the historians on this. I think all the records should be made available," Katzenbach told the Globe. "People should understand. Historians can get new perspectives if that is what the records show. Bobby might have recorded his phone calls. There would be notes of conversations with the president. He was wrong on Cuba, I think, for the most part, but it seems to me this length of time after the events it is time to make them public."

There are many reasons historian want access to the documents. "The main acts of the Kennedy presidency involved Cuba and we still don’t have the most important records," historian Lamar Waldron told the Globe. "We could flesh out many details about coup plans. We might also learn more about JFK and RFK’s desperate attempts in November 1963 to find a back-channel, peaceful solution to the Cuba issue."

For 50 years historians have speculated as to why John Kennedy handed his Attorney General the anti-Cuba portfolio in the first place. It involved the violation of so many domestic laws you needed the top law enforcement officer to oversee it," American University's Brenner said. The covert operations relied on Cuban operatives in Miami who traveled back and forth for meetings or to ferry explosives and guns. "[The operatives] did not go through customs and that’s violation of the law. Robert Kennedy could make sure the FBI or Immigration and Naturalization Service didn’t interfere."

Precedent regarding the treatment of past Attorneys General records supports making them public. According to the Justice Department, the official files of the nation’s top law enforcement officers are housed "in a variety of locations, including presidential libraries, the Library of Congress, and university libraries."

The fact that the papers will no doubt show RFK in a light far different from his later life is what remains the sticking point. Still, the fact is that most of us are intelligent enough to discern that all humans are complex, even heroes. As Katzenbach said, "I think the things [RFK] said when he came to the Justice Department would be different" when he died. "I don’t see why historians shouldn’t know that."

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