Richard Reeves

Did Kennedy Know? Did Nixon Know?

BOSTON -- Here are three of the more intriguing questions about two of the more intriguing presidents of the past 40 years:

(1) Did John F. Kennedy personally approve the many U.S. attempts to murder Fidel Castro and other leaders who displeased him?

(2) Did Richard Nixon personally order the Watergate burglary before it happened?

(3) What would Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated?

Two of these questions were answered to my satisfaction, and, I think, to the satisfaction of hundreds of people from all over the country who braved the snows of this February to attend a remarkable conference over Presidents Day weekend at the Kennedy Library.

The answers that came out of the "Presidential Tapes Conference," two days of listening to audio tapes made in the Oval Office and other parts of the White House from 1940 (Franklin D. Roosevelt) to 1973 (Nixon), were:

1. Yes, of course.

2. Yes, of course.

3. We'll never know.

The answers that count, Nos. 1 and 2, were not on the tapes, but were given by men who, for different reasons, know the tapes well and the relationships revealed by these tapes.

Sheldon Stern, the historian at the Kennedy Library for 23 years, answered the first question in a roundabout way. He was asked whether Robert Kennedy knew that his brother was taping conversations, using switches hidden in his desk and the Cabinet table -- and answered that of course he did. "That's obvious," said Stern, "to anyone who knew the relationship between those two men."

For me, there was a second part to the answer. Knowing that relationship, it is ridiculous to argue, as many Kennedy loyalists still do, that John did not know that Robert was recruiting CIA agents (and Mafia misfits, too) in elaborate and expensive assassination plots, particularly "Project Mongoose," aimed and aiming at Castro with everything from machine guns to an exploding cigar.

Question No. 2 was answered by Alex Butterfield, the Nixon assistant who revealed the existence of the tapes to congressional staffers investigating the June 17, 1972, burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. He said he was certain the president knew of the plans. The purpose was to replace a malfunctioning telephone bug planted in the same office on May 28. What Butterfield said was that he knew the first burglary was ordered by Nixon through his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. The only out left by Butterfield for Nixon loyalists was truly a technicality: He said that the burglars, led by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, may have acted without specific Oval Office authorization the second time, because they were on a repair and maintenance mission when they were caught by Washington police.

Question No. 3 was answered by many participants, most authoritatively by Carl Kaysen, the former director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, who served on Kennedy's National Security Council. The answer is, of course, that there can be no answer to what might have been.

The weekend was extraordinary, if you can imagine hearing FDR saying he wanted black men on U.S. Navy ships and maybe the way to do that was to put more bands on battleships. You could hear an exasperated JFK saying to the director of NASA, James Webb: "Everything that we do ought to really be tied to getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians. Otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space."

At one point, someone in the audience rose to talk about unreasonable White House secrecy, saying that there was no reason to wait 30 years to discover American involvement in the assassination of the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. The man was right, but there are still lessons to be learned now as we go back into the assassination business at the personal direction of President George W. Bush.

What the former officials, historians, scholars and interested Americans heard in Boston -- and on C-SPAN -- was an affirmation (or reaffirmation) of William Faulkner's cautionary line: "The past isn't dead. In fact, it isn't even past."

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