Friday, November 20, 2015

John F. Kennedy --- A Martyr for Peace?

           By Reginald Johnson

                In the most memorable speech of his presidency, John F. Kennedy told the graduates of American University in June of 1963 that America had to build a peace that would not just provide security for our nation, but for all of mankind.

            “What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace --- the kind of peace that makes life worth living  --- the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children’ --- not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women --- not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.”

    In that speech as well, Kennedy talked of U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union to achieve controls on nuclear weapons and their testing. He announced a unilateral suspension of nuclear tests in the atmosphere, so as to promote “our primary long-range interests” and a “general and complete disarmament.”

  Essentially, the speech was a repudiation of the Cold War.

   Five months later,  on November 22nd --- 52 years ago this Sunday --- President Kennedy was assassinated, gunned own in a hail of bullets as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.

   A later investigation by the Warren Commission held that one man, and one man only ---- Lee Harvey Oswald --- was the killer. Oswald was portrayed as a lonely drifter, alienated from society and pro-communist.

   But in the book “JFK and the Unspeakable --- Why He Died, and Why It Matters,” author James. W. Douglass maintains that elements of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment --- enraged over Kennedy’s less aggressive approach to dealing with Cuba and Vietnam and his push for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union --- had him murdered. Oswald was only a scapegoat in a plot carried out by other people.

   Douglass, a peace activist and Christian theologian who studied the Kennedy assassination for years, writes that Kennedy ran afoul of high military officials and the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1960s, with a series of foreign policy decisions.

  The first was when Kennedy prevented direct American assistance in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles aimed at overthrowing communist dictator Fidel Castro, an invasion which was repelled by Castro’s forces. The second was in October, 1962 when Kennedy, in the eyes of the military, made too many concessions to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during negotiations to settle the confrontation with Russia over Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Kennedy rejected a plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch a preemptive attack against Cuba (a step which would likely have triggered a nuclear war).

  The third was Kennedy’s push for a nuclear test ban; and the fourth was JFK’s order that the U.S. slow its involvement in Vietnam, and bring all troops home by 1965.

   After that, Douglass contends, Kennedy was a “marked man.”

  Douglass shows in the book how Lee Harvey Oswald, contrary to the myth spun by the Warren Commission, was actually an intelligence asset, a person manipulated by the CIA and made to look like some kooky pro-communist sympathizer who hated the United States and hated Kennedy. The perfect fall guy.

  The author writes that while it is clear Kennedy entered his presidency with a reputation as a Cold War hardliner, his attitudes began to change, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came perilously close to World War 111.

   “John Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he an apostle of non-violence. However, as we are called to do, he was turning. Teshuvah, “turning,” the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey towards peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history, toward a new, more peaceful possibility in his and our lives,” Douglass wrote.

    As his administration progressed, Kennedy knew he was out of step with the views of the military, CIA and national security team. Increasingly, he felt isolated, Douglass writes. The author maintains that Kennedy was aware of the possibility of a coup d’etat, and that his life might be in danger.

    Nonetheless, Kennedy was determined to move away from the prevailing Cold War ideology of “defeating the enemy,” and towards dialogue. Douglass reports that Kennedy set up back-door channels of communication with both Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, trying to achieve d├ętente.

  The secret communications between Kennedy and these leaders were facilitated by different people, including journalists. In fact, at the moment Kennedy was shot in Dallas, French journalist Jean Daniel, who had previously interviewed Kennedy, was interviewing Castro in Havana, and getting his response to Kennedy’s openness to improving relations between the two countries.

   Douglass raises the possibility that Kennedy willingly put his life on the line for peace.

   “Was John F. Kennedy a martyr, one who in spite of his contradictions, gave his life as witness to a new, more peaceful humanity?” he asks. Douglass doesn’t answer that question, instead saying, “let the reader decide.”

Douglass intersperses his writing about Kennedy and the plot to kill him, with a discussion of the views of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The connection is that Merton, a noted Catholic theologian in the 1950s and 1960s, was writing considerably at the time Kennedy took office about the pressing need for more dialogue between the nuclear superpowers and a move toward disarmament, in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust. He expressed his concerns in letters sent to a number of major public figures of the day, including Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy.

  Merton wrote that while he was skeptical about whether Kennedy had enough character to move away from the Cold War mindset and towards peace, he hoped he would. It’s not known whether any of Merton’s letters reached JFK himself.

  Douglass based part of his book title on a term that Merton coined in the mid-sixties --- “The Unspeakable.”  Merton came up with the term as the nation was rocked by the assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King and the mounting death toll in Vietnam.

  “The Unspeakable” referred to a moral depravity on the part of many of the nation’s leaders and individuals who are part of the secretive intelligence/national security apparatus. Put in another way, Merton felt there was a moral void on the part of people in power, a void which allows them to perpetrate massive crimes, such as assassinations, wanton bombing of other countries and torture, with no accountability.

  But The Unspeakable affects the nation’s citizens as well, Merton said. Lulled to sleep by a media which rarely asks government leaders about what’s really going on and always paints a positive picture about the country's actions abroad, people live in a “climate of denial” about the possibility that terrible things are being done to maintain American power.

   “JFK and the Unspeakable” is a remarkable book that I recommend to everyone. While I have already read quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination, this book gave me even more information and perspective. The book brought home again the power and ruthlessness of our national security state.

    I was particularly moved by Douglass’s writing on John Kennedy’s transformation from Cold War hardliner to peace advocate.

  I agree with Douglass’s assertion that we owe a debt of gratitude to John Kennedy, and his partner in peacemaking, Nikita Khrushchev, for taking steps to create a more peaceful relationship between the two superpowers and for pulling the world back from nuclear annihilation.





Friday, November 13, 2015

Stop World War III

      By Reginald Johnson


     NEW HAVEN ---- As the nation paused this week to honor the veterans of wars past and present, a group of peace activists gathered here to demand that the United States stop trying to “provoke” so much conflict around the world.

            Holding placards saying “Honor Vets, Stop Wars” and “Lower Military Budget, Raise Minimum Wage” members of the Greater New Haven Peace Council and others held a protest called “Veterans Day Vigil to Stop World War 111” to underscore the urgent need for a change in American foreign policy.

       “We’re calling for support of veterans, putting resources into veterans, not ignoring the needs of vets, addressing the medical needs of vets, but at the same time, honoring veterans by stopping wars,” said Henry Lowendorf, a spokesman for the council.

      Lowendorf said the Obama administration has to begin de-esclating the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, which the U.S. had a key role in creating in the first place.  America, he said, has to “stop provoking the Russians, the Chinese, the Syrians and other people and other governments.”

Peace activists demand that U.S. military interventions around the world must end.

    Unless there is a real change in U.S. policy --- turning towards diplomacy as a means of resolving problems and away from military intervention --- the chance of a global catastrophe is real, Lowendorf and others said.

      About a dozen people showed up for the protest, held in a drizzly rain on the corner of Chapel and College streets, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

   The demonstrators held up their signs to the cars going by, and a number of drivers honked their approval.

Mary Compton (center) and Susan Klein (left) say no to war.

     A flyer passed out by the group said: “Our world is at a critically dangerous juncture: there is the possibility of a military, even a thermonuclear, confrontation between NATO, led by the United States, and Russia. These nations each possess thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at each other on hair trigger alert. The militaries of the two superpowers are again facing each other, this time in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, and in Syria. And tensions are increasing each passing day."

   The group demanded immediate diplomatic negotiations to end the conflict in Syria, involving all interested parties, including the Syrian government; removal of all NATO forces from the states bordering Russia; dismantle NATO; remove all foreign troops from Afghanistan; and end the U.S. strategy for global domination.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ganim is back, and so is Testa


   By Reginald Johnson                  

      BRIDGEPORT ---- Fascinating piece recently in the Connecticut Post about the city’s resident kingmaker, Mario Testa.

        At the election-night victory party for Joe Ganim --- who had just completed a remarkable political comeback by winning the mayoral election in Connecticut's largest city --- reporter Brian Lockhart got Testa, the chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, to open up about his long-standing support for Ganim, and how he (Testa) sees a rather large role for himself in running city government.

       When I read the comments by Testa,  the word “hubris” kept coming to mind.

   Testa revealed that despite his public claims about being neutral during the 2015 mayoral campaign, he was working behind the scenes for a full two years to bring Ganim back and unseat incumbent Mayor Bill Finch.

     Ganim had been mayor from 1991 to 2003, before leaving the mayor’s office in disgrace after the FBI found out he was running a wide-ranging corruption scheme. Following his conviction on 16 felony counts, Ganim served seven years in prison, and was released in 2010.

   It’s unusual and not exactly kosher for a town committee chairman to be working secretly to undo the top elected official in the city, a person who is from the same political party.  The actions by Testa are all the more brazen when one considers that he was trying to replace a mayor who was basically pointing the city in the right direction with someone who had been involved in a major corruption scandal and went to prison for it.

   But Mario Testa apparently doesn’t care. He has always believed he has a lot of power, and also believes he can do things other people dare not to.

  Testa maintained that he turned on Finch because the mayor and his staff were not consulting him enough on political matters.

   “If Bill Finch would have respect for the chairman, he would still be the mayor,” Testa said in the Post interview.

   Testa also said he urged Finch to reach out to the minority community more, to party district leaders in black and Latino neighborhoods, and that wasn’t done.

   Testa has a point here; the administration could have reached out more to minorities, and Finch in the end paid a price. Ganim got strong support from blacks and Latinos in the primary election, when Ganim upset Finch.

   But the Post story indicated the town committee boss wants to be heard not just on political matters, but on City Hall policy issues as well. This was apparently another source of friction with Finch.

   This is a key point. I know that going back to the years of  Ganim’s first administration, there were a number of people who said privately that Testa was included in a lot of key decisions, including who to hire and who to appoint.

  Testa will surely regain this important behind-the-scenes role now that Ganim is back at the helm in City Hall. Since Testa played a central role in helping Ganim mount his comeback, it’s highly unlikely Ganim would now suddenly keep Testa out of the loop on key matters.

   So what you have here is a man who wields a tremendous amount of influence in how the city is run, although he never got this power through a public election or appointment. And Testa doesn’t have to answer to the public for anything he does. There’s no accountability.

    This is a very troubling situation and one which a lot of people in this city have wanted to change for some time.

   Now, it looks like they’re going to have to wait some more before this situation changes.

  Ganim will be sworn in as mayor on Dec. 1, and has a four-year term.



Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Bridgeport Voters: We Want Ganim

  By Reginald Johnson 


         BRIDGEPORT, CT ---- Well, there you have it. The voters of Bridgeport have spoken. A majority of them --- about 60 percent --- think it's OK to send a 16-count felon back into the mayor’s chair to handle their tax money, money that’s raised through one of the highest tax rates in the nation.

           Unbelievable, and very dismaying, to put it mildly.

            Joe Ganim completed his improbable comeback by smooth-talking a lot of voters and telling mistruths about how he would do better on taxes and crime and create more jobs. He also may have done some other things to help his campaign, and maybe that will come out in the wash.

           The Democratic Party nominee for mayor trounced his chief opponents in the election, Republican Enrique Torres and Independent Democrat Mary-Jane Foster.

          Ganim, who ran Connecticut’s largest city from 1992-2003 before being driven from office in disgrace following his conviction on corruption charges, will now become mayor on December 1, taking over from outgoing Mayor Bill Finch. Ganim will have a four-year term.

       There’s a lot of things that jump out about this election cycle --- taking in both the main election from Tuesday and the September primary, in which Ganim upset Finch, who served as mayor the last eight years.

     First is the way Ganim was able to fool people with a lot of phony claims about what he did and what he could do. He maintained that “crime is out of control” in the city, which comparatively, is not so. He claimed he could do better. But during several years in the 1990s, gangs were out of control in this city, and shootings and murders were constant. While homicide totals did decline later on under Ganim, they still counted at 19 for the year 2000, eight years into Ganim’s administration. (This year, with less than two months to go, Bridgeport homicides stand at 15).

 Also for the year 2000, there were 1,984 violent crimes in Bridgeport, according to FBI figures.

    Those FBI figures don’t exactly portray a city that was good on crime during Ganim’s tenure.

  It also should be noted that to the extent that violent crime did go down in the Ganim years, much was due to the assistance given local police by the FBI, State Police and ATF in curbing gangs. Crime was also going down nationally, not just in Bridgeport. Ganim’s policies had little to do with cutting crime in this city.

  (The great irony here, of course, is we are talking about stats for violent crime and street crime, not a certain kind of white-collar crime in City Hall, which, it turned out, was going on quite a bit during the Ganim years.)

  Then there’s taxes. Ganim claimed he did better on taxes when he was mayor, and promised that if elected he could help city taxpayers. It is true that Ganim was able to cut taxes in the 1990s, but it was a much better time economically to do it than now. Real estate values in the city were rising, and the state and national economy were strong. It was much easier then to raise revenue than today, and to hold off on any tax increases.

   Since 2007, real estate prices in Bridgeport have plummeted as much as 50 percent due to the national economic slump. Values have still not recovered. So today, city officials have a reduced tax base from which to raise revenue. That’s one of the reasons why the mill rate remains high, around 42 mills (that means $42 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value).

  The mill rate in Bridgeport has been hovering around 41-42 for a number of years. With property values down and a very tight city budget, exactly how is Joe Ganim going to bring down taxes? The best he’s going to do is tweak the mill rate a little bit.

   If the hard-pressed homeowners of Bridgeport are hoping for significant tax relief under Ganim, it ain’t gonna happen.

   It would have helped in this election cycle if the Connecticut Post had done some good issue stories on the mayoral candidates, explaining what their positions were and analyzing the validity of their claims about their record, and weighing the chances of these candidates being able to fulfill their promises. Ganim’s claims on taxes and crime should have been probed.

  Too much of the Post coverage was about the horse race, the chess match, who’s angling for what, blah, blah. Not enough about issues.

   In every election, people always vote a lot out of economic self-interest, but in Bridgeport, this tendency is very pronounced. There’s always a lot of folks who determine their vote based on whether they or a family member are going to get a job in City Hall, or their union or company is going to get a favorable contract from a certain candidate. I think a lot of people saw Ganim as being a benefactor for them with a job or a contract, in the same way he was years ago. Some were hoping to get back what they had lost under Finch.

  Exhibit A for this fact is the Bridgeport police union. You wouldn’t think that a police group would consider backing a person with a serious criminal record to be mayor, but they decided to endorse Ganim. This was due to Finch’s move to cut police union benefits, and the shortage of police staffing in the Finch administration.

   What’s disappointing here is that the police had the option of backing two candidates who had no legal baggage, and might have worked with them on their concerns --- Foster or Torres. Why did their choice have to be Ganim?

   The final thing that jumped out was the turnout for this general election. It wasn’t very good --- about 34 percent.  This is low for a general election. Given the historic nature of this contest, you would have thought about 50 percent of registered voters, possibly more, would have shown up. Instead, about 20,000 people went to cast ballots, out of about 60,000 registered voters in the city (2014 figures).

   Where were the others? Don’t they care?

   So the results show 11,198 people voted for Ganim. That means just over 11,000 people decided the future direction of Bridgeport, which has 150,000 people.

  But this is democracy, and you get what you get. If you don’t get involved, don’t complain later on.

 I always liked Ralph Nader's line: "If you're turned off by politics, politics will turn on you."

  Ganim claims he has turned over a new leaf. I’m definitely skeptical.  But nonetheless, let’s hope he has. He told Channel 12 after his victory speech Tuesday night that he would provide “the most transparent administration” in Bridgeport history. That is quite a promise, given the fact that he ran a very secretive administration the first time around.

    But if Ganim does run an open administration, and makes an honest effort to build a better city, I will be the first to congratulate him. I hope I’ll have that chance.