John F. Kennedy: A False Hope For Change
John F. Kennedy was the next Democratic Party president after Truman. The Democrats under Kennedy argued that Eisenhower had let the United States fall behind the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Kennedy shared the same politics as his predecessors. During the 1950s, he had been one of the most rabid Cold War anti-communists, urging the government to push out and prosecute Communists as a domestic threat. Kennedy proposed that his foreign policy would be tougher on Communism than Eisenhower’s. In 1961, Kennedy presided over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by a Cuban exile army armed and organized by the U.S. He was also directly responsible for increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His administration however was faced with a major movement of the African American population for civil rights.
Vietnam, once a French Colony, was one of many places in the world where people were rising up and attempting to throw off the domination of the imperialist countries. Every success by the oppressed gave inspiration to the people fighting elsewhere in the world. The U.S. had supported the French since 1954 because they feared the consequences of a victory for the Vietnamese. The U.S. military maintained a string of military bases in China, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. If Vietnam successfully kicked out the French it could spur these other countries to do the same to the U.S. military.
While the Democrats were fighting the Cold War, a major social movement was beginning to take hold of the African American population. African American veterans had seen a world in Europe where white people were not raised to be racist. They had seen the bigger picture and discovered that racism is not natural, and that societies could be different. The migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans to the cities, employment in industry, and the experience of the war had broadened many African American’s perspective. They were going to make the changes they wanted themselves. The impact of these pressures were reflected in the 1954, “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision, in which the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been the legal basis of segregation since the 1890s. The Supreme Court did not set any sort of plan to desegregate the South, but African Americans themselves did. Protests and boycotts were launched which forced local governments and employers to address some of the problems of racism.
In 1960, students in North Carolina decided to sit-in and integrate the local lunch counter at Woolworth’s. This form of direct action spread in a matter of weeks to fifteen cities in five Southern states. Over 3,600 of the participants were jailed for some time, but by sheer force of numbers, they forced the lunch counters to accept integration. According to the Department of Justice, there were 1,412 demonstrations in only three months of 1963. That year civil rights organizers planned a march on Washington, at which 200,000 demonstrators came to the capital. President Kennedy and other national leaders moved fast to welcome the Civil Rights Movement and pretend to be on the side of the demonstrators, despite their inaction while people were being beaten and murdered throughout the South.
Lyndon Johnson – The Vietnam War President
Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His Vice President, Lyndon Johnson took over. Johnson continued with Kennedy’s foreign and domestic policies. His most important role was escalating the U.S. military presence in Vietnam to a full-scale war. Domestically he was confronted with the growing upsurge of the Civil Rights movement and the growth of a major anti-war movement.
In 1964, the Johnson Administration manufactured an excuse for a large-scale invasion by manipulating news of events happening in Vietnam. The Johnson administration claimed that U.S. ships had been attacked while patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson portrayed this as an unprovoked attack on U.S. personnel. In fact those ships had been deep in North Vietnamese waters and the attack was a fabrication – it never happened. Johnson had wanted a reason to go to war and with the help of the news media, he sold the Gulf of Tonkin events to the American people as another Pearl Harbor. Congress almost unanimously passed a resolution to go to war on the basis of this lie. A draft was instituted to fill the ranks of the army and fight the war. In 1964, the U.S. sent 200,000 troops to Vietnam, 200,000 more in 1966, and by 1968 there were 500,000 U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. The U.S. military policy was to terrorize the population into submission.
As the war on Vietnam escalated, the struggle of African Americans against racism intensified. In 1964 Civil Rights organizations called for massive demonstrations in Mississippi, the heart of the segregated South. During that summer, groups of young people went to Mississippi and faced extreme violence from local racists. Activists hoped that by throwing their bodies on the line they would bring attention to the crimes happening in the South. Three organizers were killed in cold blood with the help of the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department. As under Kennedy, no action on the part of Johnson to defend civil rights organizers was forthcoming.
The Federal government was trying to channel the movement into the legal system. In 1965, the Johnson Administration signed the Federal Voting Rights Act which ensured access to the ballot box, dismantling local laws designed to block African Americans from voting. If they could get people to believe that the Democrats represented what they wanted, they could keep them from acting for themselves.
Even while the Johnson administration was trying to placate the Civil Rights Movement by passing legislation, the ghettos were exploding with anger. In 1964, a demonstration in Harlem erupted in a riot that lasted for three days. In 1965, the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts exploded in an enormous rebellion for five days. In the summer of 1967, a wave of riots took place, the largest in Detroit and Newark. A Congressional inquiry reported eight major uprisings that summer as well as 33 riots and 123 “minor” disorders. African Americans had undergone a shift in consciousness through their struggle for their basic rights. The slogan changed from “Civil Rights” to “Black Power.” It was a new spirit – what the elite were not willing to give peacefully, people were ready to demand by force.
Many people in the United States were drawing connections between the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War. In 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important Civil Rights organizations, issued a statement against the war and called for the troops to come home. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the chief spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement came out against the Vietnam War, calling the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The connection between, war, racism, capitalism, and U.S. foreign policy was becoming more and more obvious.
The most important resistance took place in the military. Many soldiers had been involved in the Civil Rights struggle and had been politicized. Why should they fight the Vietnamese when the people who were oppressing them were back in the United States? Soldiers circulated underground newspapers throughout the front. They began refusing to fight. Angry soldiers rolled grenades into the tents of their commanding officers. Thousands deserted the army. In 1967 alone, 47,000 soldiers were reported “missing in action.” Young men who had been drafted began refusing to enlist. In 1966, there were 380 people prosecuted for avoiding the draft. By the end of the sixties, the number of young men refusing to serve was 33,960. Between 50,000 and 100,000 draftees fled to Canada or Europe to escape being sent to Vietnam.
1968 – A Year of Struggles
The year 1968 presented a crisis for the ruling class and the Democratic Party. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive on January 30th, the Vietnamese New Year. Vietnamese forces struck at the U.S. army in over a hundred cities and launched a major assault on the capital of Saigon. At the height of the attack the National Liberation Front flag flew over the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The attack was a deep shock to the American public who were growing increasingly opposed to the war. The politicians were telling them that it was nearly over and the U.S. was nearing victory. The Tet Offensive showed that this was a lie.
Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. Immediately the inner cities of the United States erupted with anger. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. and many other cities were in flames as people took out their anger. By the end of the summer, 125 different American cities had seen urban rebellions. The local police forces could not be relied upon to contain the rebellions and National Guard troops were flown in from the South and the Midwest.
The Democrats struggled to react to these major challenges to their authority. A section of the party began to see the war as too costly to maintain. Major newspapers and TV networks began to reflect their corporate owners’ questioning of the war, becoming critical of the government policy. The Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the urban rebellions made capitalists understand they could no longer rely on the population to fight a war abroad and they also faced a growing resistance at home. Still, a good deal was invested in the war and sections of the capitalist class refused to accept defeat in Vietnam and were unwilling to make concessions to the Black Movement.
The year 1968 was also an election year. The Democratic primaries became an electoral contest for those who wanted to change policy, and those who wanted to stay the course. There were two candidates who came out against the war: the little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and the much more famous Senator Robert F. Kennedy (JFK’s brother) of New York. Both Kennedy and McCarthy had served long terms in various government positions. McCarthy was a Senator on the fringes of the Democratic Party. He had been a consistent critic of the Vietnam War. As the election of 1968 drew closer, he gained popularity, reflected in the Democratic Primary, where he received 38 percent of the vote, and Robert Kennedy received 30 percent, as opposed to Johnson’s five percent. McCarthy’s candidacy challenged the Democratic Party to reconsider its attitude towards the Anti-War Movement.
Kennedy on the other hand was part of the wealthy Kennedy family, had served as Attorney General during his brother’s administration, and later as a Senator from New York. He had not uttered a word of opposition to the Vietnam War until after the New Hampshire primary. After the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy came out against the war. The usual arguments were made to excuse his late-coming anti-war convictions, that he was being “pragmatic” and was only trying to stay “electable” before 1968.
The introduction of anti-war candidates split the Democratic Party. Some politicians were impressed with McCarthy and Kennedy’s popular stance on the war and wanted a shift in policy but a substantial portion of the Party apparatus, especially its local city and state government officials, supported Johnson and continuing the war. Many Southern Democratic politicians broke away and supported third party candidate George Wallace, the militantly racist governor of Alabama. With the party split three ways, and his popularity falling in opinion polls, Lyndon Johnson finally appeared on television and announced that he would not run in the election.
This election was a major focus, even a distraction for some of the people who had been engaged in the social movements in the 1960s. On the one hand they were excited to see their views reflected by establishment politicians, McCarthy and Kennedy. It was amazing for people in the movement to see Lyndon Johnson decline to run because of the pressure against him and the war. People felt that they were truly changing things because the politicians were changing their tune. They failed to see that the emergence of anti-war candidates was yet another attempt by the Democrats to co-opt people’s energies. People were being fooled yet again by the same old promise of politicians who are “really” on their side. Then, in May, Robert F. Kennedy who had won the California primary over Eugene McCarthy was shot and killed. For many people this was very demoralizing because of the amount of energy and hope that had been invested in Kennedy.
The pro-war section of the Democratic Party dominated the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August. Anti-war protests outside of the convention drew thousands of protesters. Chicago’s Democratic Party Mayor Daley ordered police to meet the protesters with force. The convention was surrounded by thousands of police, National Guard, and barbed wire fences. Despite police violence the protests raged outside the convention for eight days. Inside the convention, the pro-war candidate, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, won almost three times as many votes as the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Much like today, the Democratic Party candidate was not selected by popular vote alone. Democratic Party bosses were able to cast deciding votes. The real decision makers in the Democratic Party – the corporate donors and professional politicians – had decided that without Kennedy they would not even try to appeal to the anti-war sentiment. The pro-war Hubert Humphrey became the candidate of the Democratic Party.
The election of 1968 saw two pro-war candidates running against each other – Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. Humphrey alienated people who were against the war and did nothing to significantly distinguish himself from his opponent. He was identified in the public mind with Lyndon Johnson. Nixon played into the fear of many Americans who did not understand the urban rebellions in the inner cities and the U.S. losses in Vietnam. Nixon won with a campaign appealing to this “Silent Majority” for a return to normalcy and order. Nixon also suggested that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War.
After 1968: The Democrats in Disarray
The Democrats were in complete retreat with the Party split internally. In 1972, the Kennedy and McCarthy supporters won the nomination for the Democratic Party ticket supporting a South Dakota Senator, George McGovern. McGovern promised an immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam as well as a decrease in war spending. Meanwhile, the rest of the Democratic Party establishment not only opposed McGovern, they actively campaigned against him after he was nominated. The result was a schizophrenic campaign in which leading Democrats campaigned against the Democratic Party candidate.
People were presented with no clear alternative in the election of 1972. The Democrats were split and in chaos. For many people they no longer seemed like an alternative. Voter turnout in the election was only 55.2 percent of the electorate despite the charged political atmosphere. Nixon was elected again by a wide majority, but only among the small voter turnout.
People did not stop resisting. In fact people became more desperate to find ways to oppose the war machine which seemed to carry on regardless of protests. This opposition took on many forms, both collective and individual. Veterans formed the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and held protests of returned soldiers in front of the White House. Daniel Ellsberg, a top-level employee of the Pentagon, leaked secret documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. Women, many who had been active in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, began to organize to address women’s issues. This movement, the Feminist Movement, fought for a change in the way women were treated in society. The movement demanded equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities in education, and free childcare.
The Carter Administration
Jimmy Carter became president when there was a deep mistrust of the government and the entire electoral system. Many people felt that the government was part of the problem and had no concern for ordinary people. The population had just been through two major social movements (the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement), a rebellion within the army, followed by movements for women’s rights, gay rights, prisoners’ rights, American Indian and environmental movements. In the previous decade, many people proved to themselves that if they wanted things to change, they had to rely on their own actions, not the politicians. Coupled with this newly established self-confidence was a complete mistrust in the entire government, born from lies about Vietnam, assassinations and imprisonment of political activists, and the Watergate scandal with President Nixon, which led to his resignation. In the 1976 election, only 53 percent of eligible voters even bothered to vote. Carter was elected by only 50 percent of those that voted – that totals only 25 percent of the eligible voting population. He was hardly seen as a solution.
In his campaign for president, Carter tried to regain the trust of the disillusioned public through pretending to share their political views. Even though Carter had supported the Vietnam War until it ended, he tried to convince people he had been against the war. He promised to cut the military budget, provide health care for the poor, and diminish the inequities of wealth between the African American and white populations. He attempted to gain people’s respect through appearing as an ordinary, hardworking farmer from the South. In reality, Carter was a millionaire peanut grower who inherited the land from his father. When he was elected, Carter even made a few token appointments within his administration to keep the charade going. He appointed an African American woman, Patricia Harris, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, Andrew Young, as ambassador to the United Nations, and a former anti-war activist, Sam Brown, to head up a new department in charge of the Peace Corps.
But his other appointees were a continuation of the past. His National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, were strong supporters of the Vietnam War, and his Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, was Secretary of Defense under Nixon, and supported a continued increase in the military budget. The majority of Carter’s other appointees had strong connections to the corporate elite, including the Trilateral Commission, an international grouping of major capitalists, like David Rockefeller, and foreign policy experts, like Brzezinski. The main purpose of this group was to improve international military and economic strategies of emerging U.S. multinational companies. This group chose to support Carter in the election because they believed that, following the Watergate scandal with Nixon, a Republican would not be elected.
Carter’s Foreign Policy
Carter has been portrayed in the media as an international humanitarian activist. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. When we look at the actual foreign policy record of Carter’s presidency, however, we see the exact opposite of humanitarianism. We see Carter’s unflinching support of U.S. corporate interests, a consistent support of brutal dictators, and the policy of crushing popular movements.
In his State of the Union address of 1980, Carter gave the following warning:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
The Carter Doctrine was a warning to the rest of the world that the U.S. would not hesitate to defend its oil interests in the Middle East with military force. The Carter Doctrine simply summed up what had been carried out by U.S. imperialism for about 100 years, and modeled the kind of foreign policy that was maintained throughout the Carter administration:
Just before President Carter took office, the Indonesian military, under the dictator General Suharto, invaded the small island of East Timor, and within the next few years, slaughtered 200,000 people, about one third of the population. The Carter administration gave uncritical support to Suharto, and even increased military aid to his government by 80 percent, amounting to several hundreds of millions of dollars. Without U.S. aid, Suharto’s military may have run out of weapons and been defeated by the East Timorese resistance. The U.S. did not want this to happen because Suharto’s government was extremely obedient to U.S. economic interests. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, encouraged by the Ford Foundation, the U.S. supported the rise to power of General Suharto through a military coup against a nationalist movement in Indonesia. As soon as Suharto was in power, he practically handed over the Indonesian economy and resources (primarily oil, ore and timber) to U.S. corporations. The Carter administration did not hesitate to come to the military aid of this brutal tyrant.
Support for Mobutu
In the central African country of Zaire, through a coup in 1965, President Mobutu Sese Seko came to power. His regime was as brutal as they come. He built a personal fortune while the country was sinking further into economic debt and collapse. He carried out public hangings and torture of suspected opponents. Mobutu would sometimes sentence members of the government to death, have them tortured, and then he would pardon their sentence and reappoint them to a position in the government, this time with the confidence they wouldn’t dare betray him. This was his method of assuring loyalty.
Publicly, the Carter administration tried to distance itself from Mobutu’s government, but actually it was a major supporter. The majority of aid to sub-Saharan Africa under Carter, went to Mobutu. And in 1977, an uprising against Mobutu broke out in the southern province of Shaba. The Carter administration, as well as France and Belgium, responded immediately with two million dollars in military supplies. The U.S. gave permission to Moroccan soldiers, armed with U.S. weaponry, to fly into Zaire and aid Mobutu in crushing the uprising. And soon afterwards, newspapers reported that behind the scenes, the CIA was recruiting mercenaries to send to Zaire to support Mobutu’s weak military.
Dictatorships Around the World
Carter’s administration aided military death squads in El Salvador responsible for the murder of thousands of people who resisted the land reforms in the country, which kicked thousands of peasants off their land and handed it over to U.S. agricultural companies. It gave continued support to the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, responsible for the rape, torture and murder of thousands of Nicaraguans. And in order to maintain U.S. military bases and economic investment in the Philippines, the Carter administration continued the U.S. military aid of the previous decade to the brutal dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. Under the Carter administration, the U.S. continuously vetoed U.N. resolutions to impose sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The Carter administration also gave consistent military support to the brutal Shah of Iran, who guaranteed U.S. companies access to Iranian oil. Under the Shah, SAVAK, Iran’s police force trained by the CIA, tortured and murdered thousands of Iranians. Their brutality included torture by electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to testicles, and ripping out teeth. In short, Carter’s administration represents an undeniable continuation of the military dominance and brutality of previous administrations.
The Camp David Lies
Another part of Carter’s false legacy is the supposed Pro-Palestine agenda he tried to push during the Camp David Accords of 1978. The Camp David Accords of 1978, signed between Israel and Egypt, has been presented as a major concession by Israel to the people living in the occupied territories of Palestine. The agreement has been represented as providing the Palestinian people with their own state. For signing the treaty, Egypt received billions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. But the so-called Palestinian state was nothing more than small, isolated plots of land connected through Israeli military checkpoints. In effect, the Camp David Accords supported the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and it conceded nothing to Palestinians except further occupation.
The Carter Economy: Handouts to Corporations and Attacks on Workers and the Poor
During his administration, a snapshot of the economy accurately reflects the interests Carter supported. The top one percent of the country had more than 33 percent of the wealth. The top ten percent of the population had more than 30 times the bottom ten percent of the population. And 83 percent of all corporate stock was owned by only five percent of the population. Exxon Mobil’s profits were increasing over 56 percent per year, to over four billion dollars, and their CEO was making over $830,000 per year. Meanwhile, over ten million children had no health care. Eighteen million children had never been able to see a dentist. The prices of food and necessities were rising faster than workers’ wages, with an inflation rate of 18 percent by 1980. Official levels of unemployment were between six and eight percent, but for African Americans it was between 20-30 percent.
Carter was elected promising to cut the U.S. military budget and decrease arms sales around the world. But during his term in office, he did neither. The U.S. remained the leading arms dealer throughout the world, maintaining the export of around nine and a half billion dollars per year in arms. And in his first budget proposal to Congress, Carter increased the military budget by ten billion dollars, spending one trillion dollars on the military for the next five years. He also denied $25 million earmarked for poor schoolchildren. Carter also supported attacks on women’s access to abortion. In 1976, he signed the Hyde Amendment into law. This prohibited the use of federal funding (through Medicaid) for poor women to have abortions. When criticized for the blatant unfairness of the law, he said: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, [many things] that wealthy people can afford and poor people cannot.” He also passed tax legislation that increased the taxes on the poorest 50 percent of the population and gave about 18 billion dollars in reductions to corporations and extremely wealthy individuals. And Carter began the deregulation of key industries in the U.S. – trucking, shipping, and airlines. Deregulation meant the lifting of government regulations that could set price limits for consumers and regulate the formation of monopolies. Carter eliminated these regulations and paved the way for the rapid formation of larger monopolies in these industries, with more of the profits going to fewer corporations.
Throughout his presidency, Carter supported attacks on workers in defense of corporations. Between 1977 and 1978, over 165,000 coal miners went on strike across the Appalachian Mountains. Coal companies were trying to force a new contract on workers that would make them pay for health benefits, and would impose massive layoffs, which would result in even more dangerous conditions with fewer workers operating the mines. The company was also trying to force workers to give up their right to strike over many issues, and to allow the company to fire workers who were known organizers of wildcat strikes (usually strikes organized by rank and file workers not necessarily sanctioned by the union), which had been growing as workers defended themselves against increasingly unsafe conditions. Towards the end of the strike, Carter threatened the striking workers with the Taft-Hartley Act. This authorized the government to send in federal troops to break the strike. Ten days after Carter’s threat to send in federal troops, the coal miners’ union, the UMW, pushed the striking miners to accept the harsh contract, which was a major setback, not just for the miners but for the whole U.S. working class.
Carter also laid the foundation for the crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), the union of about 17,000 air traffic controllers. Throughout the 70’s, these workers faced concessions, like understaffing, forced overtime, and pay cuts, but they were a well-organized workforce that was able to resist these cuts going further. The government wanted to break the union and impose massive paycuts. This was finally achieved in 1981 when President Reagan ordered the firing of over 11,000 of 17,000 workers and the elimination of the PATCO union. But it was Carter who paved the way. One year before the contract was up, Carter ordered the formation of what was called a “Management Strike Contingency Force.” Its goal was to train replacement workers (scabs), and put pressure on the most militant workers in the union before any strike broke out. So, when Reagan acted in 1981 to break the union, the scabs were already trained and on-hand, ready to take over the jobs of the 17,000 workers. So when we think about Reagan and the crushing of PATCO, we should really be thinking about Carter too.
Jimmy Carter was a true representative of the Democratic Party – an avid defender of the ruling elite of this country and a staunch opponent of working and poor people.