Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1884
Few would doubt that The Dark Side of Camelot will rank high among the most controversial books of the 1990’s. Its publication late in 1997 was marked by unprecedented public notice, including a ten-page cover story in Time magazine. Seymour M. Hersh is a reporter whose exposure of the My Lai massacre won him a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, as well as being the author ofThe Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In The Dark Side of Camelot, he assesses the presidency of John F. Kennedy in the light of his research.
Early in the book, Hersh sets the tone for much of what is to follow by telling how Robert Kennedy, immediately upon his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963, had the combinations on John Kennedy’s locked files changed because he “understood that public revelation of the material in his brother’s White House files would forever destroy Jack Kennedy’s reputation as president, and his own as attorney general.”
Hersh then goes on to rattle various skeletons in the Kennedy closet, including John Kennedy’s alleged marriage to Durie Malcolm in 1947, his failure to obtain a divorce following this alleged marriage, his complicity in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plot to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, his prior knowledge of the CIA’s assassinations of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and his involvement in the plot to assassinate South Vietnam’s Ngo Dihn Diem. The files, according to Hersh, would also reveal that Kennedy struck a secret deal with Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev to save face during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. This compromise remained secret for the next quarter of a century.
One must ask what has happened to the damning files of which Hersh speaks. Would they not eventually have been placed in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts? Would other scholars and researchers not have mined them for all the scandal that Hersh suggests was in them? Can they have disappeared totally and forever? Hersh addresses but never fully answers these questions in the book’s epilogue.
Hersh also alleges that Kennedy’s father bought the West Virginia primary for his son and that Kennedy money was funneled into the organized crime syndicate in Chicago through mobsters Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli to ensure both union and mob support of the Kennedy ticket in Illinois. Hersh further alleges irregularities in the handling of campaign funds, a charge made difficult to substantiate, Hersh contends, by the failure of the Kennedy camp to keep books.
Over and above all this, Hersh delves into John Kennedy’s voracious sexual appetites and the effect they had on national security, particularly in the light of the fact that Kennedy supposedly was consorting sexually with women linked to the mob and with at least one known spy. One of his paramours, Judith Campbell Exner, supposedly carried $250,000 in Kennedy cash to Chicago and turned it over to Rosselli and Giancana, who was also sexually involved with Exner, to be used to help solidify Illinois’ Democratic ticket. Hersh goes into detail about a dinner that Exner and Kennedy had in Kennedy’s Georgetown residence when Jacqueline Kennedy was away. He acknowledges in his notes that this account is drawn from Kitty Kelley’s piece in the February 29, 1988, issue of People magazine. Especially interesting is the title of Kelley’s story: “The Dark Side of Camelot.”
Connected to Hersh’s obsession with Kennedy’s promiscuity is the allegation that John Kennedy suffered for more than thirty years from venereal diseases and that information about his general health, which admittedly was less than vigorous, was systematically withheld from the voting public. It has been documented that Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, which reduces the body’s ability to fight infection. Kennedy’s doctors controlled this condition for many years with frequent shots of cortisone, often administered by Dr. Max Jacobson, who, after Kennedy’s election, frequently visited the White House.
According to Hersh, the Kennedy administration was a short step away from disaster throughout its existence because of the embarrassing and compromising secrets surrounding it. A dark specter in the whole convoluted deception that Hersh insists was being perpetrated was J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover’s seething hatred of the Kennedys was combined with an idealized and romanticized view of what the American presidency should be.
Ironically, Robert Kennedy’s appointment as attorney general made him Hoover’s boss, a bitter pill for Hoover to swallow. Despite the animus between Hoover and the Kennedys, however, John Kennedy was quick to reappoint Hoover to the directorship of the FBI shortly after his inauguration. Hersh speculates, probably correctly, that Kennedy, realizing how much damaging confidential material Hoover had in his files about the entire Kennedy family, could not take the risk of alienating him. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt had wanted to unseat Hoover from his sinecure in the FBI, but none dared risk the aftermath, so Hoover remained director until his death in 1972.
Hoover, never averse to using his secret FBI files to get his way, had bulging dossiers on all the Kennedys. He used the threat that he might expose information in these files, Hersh alleges, to force John Kennedy to accept Hoover’s Washington neighbor, Lyndon B. Johnson, as his running mate in 1960. Johnson had often fed Hoover gossip about Kennedy, helping to swell the already voluminous Kennedy files.
Unable to risk exposure by defying Hoover, Kennedy finally accepted Johnson as his running mate, commenting at the time, “I’m forty-three years old. I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything.” Once elected, Kennedy made sure that the vice presidency would not mean anything. Johnson became the most detached and excluded vice president in recent history, being privy to little that went on in the White House and never in any way being permitted to insinuate himself into Kennedy’s select inner circle.
As the 1960 primaries approached, political strategists realized that winning the West Virginia primary was crucial to the Kennedy campaign. The Kennedy forces publicly acknowledged spending a hundred thousand dollars on the campaign in West Virginia. Hersh insists, however, that Joseph Kennedy poured two million of his own dollars into the West Virginia contest, determined to buy the West Virginia victory for his son.
This figure seems highly questionable inasmuch as it is reliably estimated that the entire expenditure of the Democratic Party for the 1960 campaign nationally was about ten million dollars. Hersh presents little hard evidence that one-fifth of all the money spent was poured into West Virginia, an allegation that seems preposterous.
One finds it difficult to be convinced by Hersh’s citation of Kennedy’s loyal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, saying that the Kennedys bought the West Virginia victory. It also shakes one’s confidence in Hersh’s allegation to learn that Charles Peters, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, who was the chair of the Kennedy campaign in Kanawah County, West Virginia, questioned the two-million-dollar figure during his five interviews with Hersh. Hersh, however, simply would not listen to Peters’s objections about the amount, presumably having already made up his mind that his figure was accurate. If it were accurate, it would certainly support Hersh’s thesis that the Kennedys bought West Virginia, an idea that Hersh was eager to promote.
In the matter of John Kennedy’s alleged marriage in 1947 to Durie Malcolm, one might question why no record of such a marriage has ever been uncovered. Kennedy’s longtime friend, Charles Spalding, insists that the marriage took place, lasted for a very short time, and was then expunged from the records by having the documentation regarding it removed from the Palm Beach County courthouse and presumably destroyed. Such an account is questionable, particularly in the light of Durie Malcolm’s denial that a marriage between the two ever took place.
Charles Spalding who, according to Hersh, suffers from lapses in his short-term memory—was, again according to Hersh, dispatched to Los Angeles in 1960, when Marilyn Monroe was abusing alcohol and tranquilizers, “to make sure that she was okay—that is to make sure that Monroe did not speak out of turn.” Spalding denies that his reason for going to Los Angeles was to restrain Monroe, saying that, despite his loyalty to John Kennedy, he would not have gone under such a mandate. In actuality, when he got to Los Angeles, he found Monroe in a distraught state and, with Peter Lawford’s assistance, arranged for her hospitalization.
Of the book’s twenty-four chapters, the one with the most far-reaching implications is probably chapter 10, “The Stolen Election.” This chapter brings into serious doubt whether John F. Kennedy did indeed defeat Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Some sixty-eight million votes were cast nationally. The final tally showed that Kennedy won by a plurality of 118,000 votes.
The state of Illinois was crucial to a Kennedy victory. Downstate Illinois was strongly Republican, but the metropolitan Chicago area, where the Richard Daley machine had held sway for decades, was solidly Democratic. Joseph Kennedy, whose ownership of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart made him extremely influential among Chicago union officials, politicians, and mobsters, concentrated his efforts on ensuring John Kennedy’s victory in Illinois.
Sam Giancana and Mayor Daley saw to it that Chicago delivered what Joe Kennedy apparently had paid for. A remarkable 89 percent of Chicago’s electorate voted officially in the election and gave Kennedy 436,312 votes more than his opponent. The figures were astounding, both in terms of the percentage of people who voted and in terms of the margin by which Kennedy won Chicago. Nixon ultimately decided against challenging the count, although he seemed to have ample cause to do so. He felt that if a recount went against him, this could hobble his political future. Kennedy, therefore, was officially the victor.
Hersh details well the dynamics of the election and the importance of Illinois in ensuring a Kennedy victory. The state’s twenty-seven electoral votes were essential if Kennedy was to become president. They were needed to counterbalance twenty-six unpledged Democratic electoral votes from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Fourteen of these twenty-six votes eventually were cast for Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia rather than for Kennedy. Without Illinois’s electoral votes, Kennedy could not have carried the electoral college.
The Dark Side of Camelot, for all its flaws, raises compelling questions that will spark future research and investigation. Much of what Hersh contends is likely to be disproved. In disproving it, however, future researchers undoubtedly will come closer to developing and presenting an objective assessment of the John F. Kennedy presidency as it really existed and functioned.
Sources for Further Study
Barron’s. LXXVII, December 1, 1997, pp. 56-57.
Boston Globe. November 23, 1997, p. E1.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 8, 1997, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 28, 1997, p. 6.
The Nation. CCLXV, December 15, 1997, p. 27.
National Review. XLIX, December 22, 1997, p. 74.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 30, 1997, p. 13.
The New Yorker. LXXIII, December 1, 1997, p. 84.
Newsweek. CXXX, September 8, 1997, p. 68.
People Weekly. XLVIII, December 1, 1997, pp. 125-127.
Time. CL, November 17, 1997, p. 40.
The Wall Street Journal. November 14, 1997, p. A16.