I’ve been teaching a course in 20th century history for the last few years, and it has always been a challenge to find ways to help 21st century people understand what it was like to live in the pre-1991 world. I was born in 1959 during a brief moratorium in atmospheric nuclear bomb testing, but the fallout was at its peak just before and just after this time, before the definitive end of atmospheric tests by the US, USSR and the UK. The news was out that Strontium-90 and the Iodine-131 were in the milk throughout the world. Europe was divided between the Warsaw Pact countries and NATO countries, and there was almost no free travel of citizens between the two sides of the iron curtain. In 1972, it was a really big deal when Canadian professional and Soviet “amateur” hockey teams held a Summit Series to see which country could put together the best team in the world. People born after the 1980s find it difficult to understand why the world was ever so divided and terrified of nuclear war. My students had never learned much contemporary history at all, and they found this old world to be a strange place.
I approached this broad subject by talking about specific periods, leaders, events, wars, and regions, and explained the role of religion, ideology and economic interests. It took a while to see which of these most interested the students, and which were most effective at revealing what the conflict was all about. It turned out that the early 1960s captured the students’ interest and also had the most explanatory value. In particular, one could start with November 22, 1963 and work backward and forward from there to gain an understanding of the entire century, of the problem elaborated famously in 1848 by Marx and Engels when they wrote, “A specter is haunting Europe…” The specter haunts the world enough still that the current US president felt compelled to warn about it in his 2018 address to the United Nations Assembly.
After I came to understand the early 1960s as the touchstone of the cold war era, I found that Daniel Sheehan, a man who has done much research into the JFK assassination (in addition to his famous legal career), had reached the same conclusion. In a two-and-a-half-hour lecture he gave in 2016, he stressed that the assassination should not be seen as just an irrelevant obsession of conspiracy nuts but should be taken seriously as the crucial event that reveals the roots of the problems faced by the United States and the world today.
In his lecture he goes over all the details of the assassination that prove the Warren Commission findings were a coverup, and he explains the web of criminal gangs, government agencies, and financial interests that carried out the crime. Then he explains why the assassination is still the essential lesson for understanding how the world got to its present state. Readers can go to the lecture to listen to the details about how the assassination was carried out, but key excerpts from his explanation of its significance follow below.
Although Daniel Sheehan identifies the cabal that holds up the power of US hegemony, there is controversy about whether JKF really had to be killed to protect their interests. JFK could have been brought down by exposure of his personal scandals and various other means that the CIA has for character assassination.
Also, it’s likely that JFK would have backed off his plan for a cold war thaw in order to get re-elected. Many people have faith that JFK sincerely wanted to end the cold war and could have ended the cold war, but this policy was an opposition to anti-communism, which, logically, had to be pro-communist. Kennedy’s devotees never admit to such an endorsement or such a rejection of capitalism. They want to have it both ways. They want to reject anti-communism but not admit that capitalism is by definition anti-communist. Ending the cold war would have meant admitting the Soviet Union’s right to exist and develop its economic system undisturbed, and this would have also entailed admitting that the United States also had to move toward socialism in order to become a just society.
I find it likely that JFK was killed for motives that were more personal than business-related. He had plenty of enemies: the anti-Castro mercenaries, organized crime leaders, Lyndon Johnson, Allen Dulles (head of the CIA whom JFK had fired), and J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI). Dulles still had power in retirement, and by this time he was so accustomed to having people killed that killing a US president would not have caused any disturbance of his moral compass, if he had one. All of these people had the personal animus to want to have JFK killed, but he didn’t need to be killed in order to achieve a change in leadership or government policy that would protect his enemies’ financial interests. The agencies of the permanent state have many ways to make sure a president fails or is coerced to pursue their objectives. But perhaps the goal was to intimidate all politicians in the future with one traumatizing demonstration of violence.
Sheehan asserts that Dulles “was in the catbird seat,” coordinating approval for the assassination between those who executed it and the financial power holders who wanted JFK replaced. Dulles could have told the latter with great ambiguity that there was a plan to “take care of the Kennedy problem” and they would have asked no questions about what that meant. Surely, they would say, it meant he would be eliminated as a viable candidate for re-election in 1964, not killed. Afterwards, none of them would have had a motive to disturb the coverup.
Regardless of what one thinks about these controversial questions about the motives for the assassination and the full roster of who was in on it, Daniel Sheehan’s lecture provides valuable insights into the roots of the contemporary political dysfunction and many of the misguided and wasted efforts to overhaul the economic and political system that rules the world—the calories burned in trillions of American brain cells on the recent Russian “red” scare being a prime example.
Daniel Sheehan, Trajectory of Justice, Rulers of the Realm, 14th and 15th lectures, May 17th and 19th, 2016, University of California Santa Cruz
I want to discuss the [JFK] assassination.. because I want you to be able to discuss this with your family and with your friends and neighbors throughout the rest of the year, and the rest of your lives really, to be able to talk about it in a very informed way. The fact that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 is a very terrible event and it was very sad for virtually everybody in the country, and as important as it was for the strategic impacts that it had at that time… [nonetheless] these are not really the most terrible aspects of the assassination… Once you understand who did it and who was involved in covering it up, then it will be very clear that the most horrible aspect of it is that it can happen again because the people who did it were not brought to justice. The people who were involved in covering it up were never revealed or brought to justice, and for that reason the effectiveness of the assassination still remains with politicians today who realize what can happen to them if they cross these particular people. So unless and until we, that is your generation and my generation, the millennials and the baby boomers, join together to effectively reveal what really happened surrounding this assassination, and take the steps necessary to deconstruct the structural sources that generated this particular assassination, it not only can but it almost certainly will happen again.
So we want to address this issue directly here… what the class is all about is elucidating the elite core of men—virtually all of them are men—who basically, from behind the scenes, manipulate United States domestic and foreign policy… We’ll see that this has been happening virtually ever since the beginning of the country, but there was this especially tragic period… this whole period from the end of the American Civil War all the way up to World War One and World War Two, and its aftermath, that led to the assassination of President Kennedy.
I want to discuss the aftermath of the assassination that points more and more toward the general explanation of the assassination that you get in the three books that I just referenced [by Douglass, Scott and Talbot—see the list of sources]… and we’re going to be discussing things next week which have to do with the Watergate burglary, the return of the impeachment resolution by the House Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon flowing out of the Watergate burglary, what the connection between the Watergate burglary and the Kennedy assassination was, the installation of the Church Committee, the House Select Committee or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Abuse chaired by Senator Frank Church, and then followed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and the Iran-Contra Select Committee—all of which had these major select committees appointed in Congress because of this sequence of scandals that besieged the United States during that period of time, which all arose out of this issue that we’re talking about in this course: that there was this very aggressive effort on the part of the national security state bureaucracy, and this cabal that I’ve been talking about, to suppress any type of full-scale revelation about what was going on behind the scenes in all of those scandals because they are all basically the same thing.
… what I want to do is return to the historical origins of this cabal to try to make clear that it wasn’t just this narrow period of time that we’ve been talking about— from just before World War One down to the end of World War Two to the assassination of President Kennedy—during which this cabal has been functioning. I don’t want you to leave this course being depressed about the fact that there’s a cabal that has been in charge of the United States during your lifetime, that has been going on the whole time. I’m not sure whether that’s more depressing or less depressing, but I want you then to be able to address what I think we can do about it.
So what I want to do today is point out a dozen or so key facts that make it clear that the Warren Commission findings about the Kennedy assassination are totally unreliable and then, secondly, I want to point out a half-dozen key facts that I believe point directly toward the larger explanation of the assassination that we’re talking about in this class. Then I want to discuss this entire issue of the Kennedy assassination in the context of the general themes that we’re addressing in the course—that being that there is this element behind the scenes in the United States that basically dictates the foreign policy and the domestic policy of the United States.
Joe Trento [author of Prelude to Terror] said that when he talked to James Jesus Angleton, he told him that that Allen Dulles in 1953 had hired Angleton to be the head of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency on the explicit condition that Angleton agree never to flutter (that means give a lie-detector test) to either Dulles, himself or any of the sixty men that worked with him to help fund Germany at the end of World War One up into World War Two, and that was the specific demand that was made by Dulles to Angleton. This is the group of people that Dulles worked with. It isn’t that he answered to these people but that these were the people that were deep into the centers of power—financial, banking, investment banking, running the major corporations, the steel corporations, the petroleum industry. These sixty men were the people that Franklin Roosevelt was talking about … when he said that if this process of corporate consolidation continues, by the time we reach the end of this century, the entire country will be run by less than 50 men who own and run the major corporations. That’s what he said back in 1942. These are the people. It is not that Dulles answered to them but that he worked in conjunction with them in making these major policy decisions.
So there was no reason why Dulles would have had to go out on a limb by himself, to jeopardize himself [by having JFK assassinated] by not having the support of these people. It was true that Kennedy had not only abandoned any effort to overthrow the Cuban revolutionary government but he had in fact agreed to open a back channel of communications to normalize relations with Fidel Castro. He had in fact reached out to Nikita Khrushchev, and by reason of this exchange of letters through Norman Cousins, these 18 separate private letters, that they were planning to disassemble the nuclear warheads of the United States arsenal and those of the Soviet Union… These sixty men and Dulles and their compadres, and their grandparents, had spent a hundred years [1860-1960] building the United States into the major hegemonic force on the planet, and it was by dint of their control of a massively superior amount of nuclear weapons that they had the power not just over the Soviet Union but China, whom they could not possibly confront in a traditional military engagement because the Chinese could put in the field a million men against them.
Allen Dulles would very much have wanted to get the green light for what he wanted to do [assassinate JFK], and he was in the catbird seat of being able to tell these men that the deepest, darkest secret was that they had found out that Kennedy was engaged in the exchange of these letters with Khrushchev and was actually planning to disassemble the nuclear arsenal of the United States, and this was viewed as high treason by these people.
The key thing to understand is that I’m telling you this only so that you’ll know how bad things are, not so that knowing this will paralyze you but so that you will be able to know what it is that you have to do.
So what I’m suggesting to you is that if you don’t understand this information, you may still be living in the illusion that all you have to do is write a letter to your congressperson, or that you might even be able to replace your congressperson, and that things would get solved, but that’s clearly not true because they are not in charge. This cabal is in charge, and so the key is having to figure out how to dig in and find out who these people are, what their levers of power are, and how we can dislodge them. So that’s the conversation that we have to have.
I don’t want you leaving this course thinking that you’ve just been told a lot of really bad news because this is in fact the good news. The fact that you now know what’s really going on is better news than you might have expected to get at college, and so at least with regard to this aspect of reality, which I think is a pretty critical central aspect of reality, you now know what we’re up against.
Daniel Sheehan, Trajectory of Justice, Rulers of the Realm, 14th and 15th lectures, May 17th and 19th, 2016, University of California Santa Cruz
Sources mentioned and other sources
Daniel Sheehan, The People’s Advocate: The Life and Legal History of America’s Most Fearless Public Interest Lawyer (Counterpoint, 2013). See the publisher’s webpage for this book for information about Daniel Sheehan’s legal career.
Daniel Sheehan’s website: https://www.danielpsheehan.com/ .
David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (William Collins, 2015).
Edwin Black, “The Plot to Kill JFK in Chicago,” Chicago Independent, November 1975.
James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (Orbis Books, 2010).
Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008, 1988)
Joseph J. Trento, Prelude to Terror: Edwin P. Wilson and the Legacy of America’s Private Intelligence Network (Basic Books, 2006).
Michael Parenti, The JFK Assassination and the Gangster Nature of the State (video)
Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (South End Press, 1993).
Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (University of California Press, 1996).
Roger Stone and Mike Colapietro, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).