Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
I didn’t know what I was getting into when Marian Haley Beil asked me to review this book. My first thought was this would be a simple retelling of the Peace Corps experience and its aftermath. But JFK and RFK Made Me Do It: 1960 to 1968 is much more than that. In this recounting, it becomes a young man’s sentimental education, akin to Gustave Flaubert’s novel of that title, though instead of living through the revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second French Empire, Sweet William takes us through the revolution wrought by JFK’s presidency and RFK’s attempt to carry on the calling of his fallen brother.
JFK & RFK MADE ME DO IT, 1960-1968 is an astonishing book in many regards, beginning with the totally engaging voice of its author, the pseudonymous, Sweet William.
I don’t remember ever being so thoroughly and immediately drawn into a narrative as I was with this book. The first paragraph begins, “In the summer of 1961 I answered JFK’s call to join the New Frontier,” usually a big yawn for me, but a few lines on, in a second short paragraph, he states, “Graduation Day, June 11, 1963 . . . I was the only railroad switchman to graduate from UCLA that day . . .. It was an aphrodisiac of the mind that opened doors one never knew existed.” In those few lines, he introduced himself as a working-class guy with higher aspirations, who knew a good thing when he saw it and was willing and more than able to catch the coattails of John F. Kennedy.
By the end of the first page, he has laid out his premise. JFK is a combat veteran who knew war first hand, a warrior- like himself, an honorably discharged veteran — who was committed to “changing the focus of American foreign policy from war to peace.” A revolutionary proposition.
From that moment, Sweet William is off and running. Even his choice in the beginning to quote long segments of Kennedy’s speech to the graduates of American University is an effective and affecting device. It is thrilling to read this erudite president speaking of world peace in equal parts idealistic aspirations and pragmatic solutions, in poetic and complex prose syntax.
William quickly dispatches the assassination of Kennedy, expressing his sorrow, but not dwelling on it, though as we move through his narrative, we see that this death of a leader is a foreshadowing device for the deaths to come.
What propels the pace and arc of this book is voice: The ingenuous, conversational, and gradually savvy authorial voice of the narrator, the speeches of JFK, the arguments and challenges of RFK, and the early, surprising pronouncements of Frank Mankiewicz, whose vision and actions hang over this entire book.
I have long been a cynic about the true genesis of the Peace Corps, thinking it was principally a JFK Cold War strategy dressed up in fine words about the youth of America reaching across oceans and continents to help the people of beleaguered Third World nations, leaving the Peace Corps volunteers to be the grunts on the front line much as the young soldiers were fighting a misguided war in Vietnam. I was suspicious of an authorization of CIA involvement in Peace Corps projects, of complicit corporate involvement in the exploitation of national resources in those Third World countries. William’s book opened up a completely different path toward understanding the evolution of the Peace Corps.
With breakneck speed Sweet William takes us on his journey, beginning with his training at Cornell University in 1964, where Frank Mankiewicz, who was then the Peace Corps country director in Peru, lectured the trainees on “The Peace Corps — A Revolutionary Force.” Cornell was an apt choice of venue for such a lecture, because since the early 1950s they had been working with an indigenous village high in the Cordillera Blanca to purchase land from a local hacienda. But here was Mankiewicz telling the young trainees that “their mission was essentially revolutionary,” in that the, “Ultimate aim of community development is nothing less than a complete change in the social and economic patterns of the countries . . ..” and communities in which they were assigned.
I was stunned and taken back to an evening, also in 1964, I spent with Mankiewicz in my apartment in the Cerro Santa Barrio, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, ostensibly to talk about my work. Instead, he prodded me with questions about my parents, particularly my father who had worked during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s developing rural and urban consumer co-operatives in the United States. I had no idea at the time, nor up to the moment of reading this book, what Mankiewicz’s positions were or what he was looking for in my answers. Prior to that evening I had only been surprised when I trained in Puerto Rico with a group of men who were going to Ecuador to set up Coop credit unions, which when I was growing up were considered left wing and by association caused my father and our family fatal economic and political difficulties during the McCarthy Witch Hunts.
But here was Mankiewicz, who had been in JFK’s inner circle, speaking publicly a mere decade later about fomenting revolution through government community development programs, with co-ops. This flew in the face of my thinking of the Peace Corps, from its beginning, as a conservative Cold War force.
A major contribution of the book is to show the evolution of the Peace Corps, from JFK’s vision for true community development through Lyndon Baines Johnson’s failure to back up the promises of the Alliance for Progress in Latin America.
This comes to light when Robert Kennedy, who is on his own “sentimental education,” preparing to take on his brother’s mantel, began to realize the tangible corruption of the U. S. AID programs. By this time in Sweet William’s increasingly powerful and informative memoir, Robert Kennedy has grown in his understanding of the causes of poverty in the United States, and the shame and hopelessness it induces, as well as the severe racial inequities that inhibit progress of people in North and South America. In the course of a visit by Kennedy to the Comas co-op of displaced Andean indigenous in the outer barriadas of Lima, we are privy to a scene where RFK was witness to the pressure and threats on AID programs by the American oil companies and how that pressure was sanctioned and even encouraged by the Johnson administration. It was policy that ran radically counter to the initial New Frontier and Alliance for Progress commitments to bettering people’s lives, and in fact was in many cases ruinous to community development projects, to which I can personally attest.
Senator Kennedy was accompanied on the visit by Peru’s U.S. AID Director William Dentzer and Peace Corps/Peru’s Deputy Director Thorburn Reid. After a significant and moving speech by an Indigenous member of the coop, describing that instead of choosing Capitalism or Communism, they had chosen a third rail, “Cooperativismo — an economic model based in part on the Incan practice of mit’a,” defined as donation of work to a communal project and sharing in its product.
Kennedy was deeply moved by the poor and filthy living conditions of the Comas families and as his caravan left the barriada, he asked the AID director if the US could do something about improving the water system.
Sweet William writes:
The AID director stammered and, cleared his throat as if he was going to speak, but nothing came out…Dentzer suddenly changed the subject . . .
Kennedy repeated, “How can we get a water system up and running for the people of Comas?”
There was no answer.
The AID director looked straight ahead, bureaucratically hog-tied by the President of the United States.
Later it emerged that the Rockefeller oil company IPC was pressuring the Johnson administration to hold up U. S. AID funding until their company won a highly profitable extraction deal. It was a strategic negotiation Johnson wanted to remain secret, but a number of Peace Corps people, bolstered by the press and Kennedy, forced his hand and it was revealed.
Sweet William threads his own political evolution with that of RFK, with the troubled history as well as the success of the building of the train system in the highest regions of the Andes by a North American capitalist entrepreneur, with stories of early Peace Corps volunteers, such as Ron Arias, who witnessed firsthand the exploitation and massacres of the Indigenous, as well as the impact on himself and others of the experience of living under dire circumstances with people who had lived with atrocity and mistreatment for generations.
Just as RFK, those early volunteers and the people they touched, were changed by the experience, so was Sweet William. We follow his own impressive development from his early limited view of farm co-ops as Communist creations to a deep understanding and alliance with the work of union activists, including the leaders of the Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta and Cezar Chavez.
Early on in the book, Sweet William makes reference to Kennedy working for the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin — Father of the “Big Red Scare” – as Deputy Counsel of McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee Investigating Communist Infiltrations of the U.S. government in 1953. RFK lasted six months disagreeing with Chief Counsel Roy Cohn and resigned.
In the late ’50s, RFK led the Senate Investigation of corruption in the trade unions implicating both Jimmy Hoffa and Dave Beck. After JFK’s assassination, RFK wondered if his past Senate investigations and Department of Justice activities against Hoffa and Carlos Joseph Marcello, the New Orleans’ mob boss who RFK had deported, contributed to his brother’s murder.
One does wonder about his long-term connection with McCarthy. As it turns out, RFK was surrounded by Senator Joe McCarthy supporters. His father, conservative Catholic Joe Kennedy, was the biggest financial contributor to conservative Catholic Senator Joe McCarthy. Even RFK’s father-in-law George Skakel, the enormously wealthy founder of Great Lakes Carbon Company, and a conservative Protestant, called Senator Joe McCarthy his best friend. While RFK soon distanced himself from Joe McCarthy, his first-born, Kathleen, has Senator Joe McCarthy as her Godfather; and, in the end, RFK never disowned Senator Joe McCarthy.
RFK’s transformation from working with Joe McCarthy to becoming an advocate for strong Chicano and radical unions, is a crucial piece of this story. His visits to Latin America transformed him in this regard. He became more than a one-note peace candidate, in contrast to Eugene McCarthy who ran against him in the primaries. As the Peace and Civil Rights movements became more militant, RFK took up the banner of activists of color fighting for justice.
We follow the story of the growing demands for peace and racial justice through RFK’s transformation, as well as the dark government resistance to his candidacy. Sweet William captures the zeitgeist by succinctly quoting Stephen Stills’ song lyrics at the time.
“Watch out,” Stephen Stills warned, “Battle lines are being drawn. Nobody is right if everyone is wrong . . ..” “Hey,” he plaintively asked, “what’s that sound? Everybody look at what’s goin’ down . . ..”
Sweet William goes on to explain that Still’s message “was obvious to every one but our leaders . . . it was Still’s epiphany that bound the members of the counter-culture together, a prescient signal to all like-minded of what was to come.”
As the book proceeds, with the political militancy and the corresponding government oppression of it rising, Bobby Kennedy is building toward a win and Sweet William is deeply involved in that sweet possibility. Toward the end of his primary campaign, when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Kennedy walked into a crowd in Indianapolis to speak of rejecting division and hatred, connecting it candidly to the death of his brother.
But on May 28th he lost the Oregon primary to Eugene McCarthy. Four days before that loss it had emerged that as Attorney General RFK had signed off on an FBI wiretap of Martin Luther King. With the primaries in New York and California gearing up, Kennedy suddenly seemed to become nervous. In a scene Sweet William observes that Kennedy has returned from appearances in New York City, fatigued, unusually silent, and outwardly despondent.
Though Kennedy had won his Senatorial election in New York in 1964, there was residual discomfort about his carpet-bagger entry into that race. There was also a deep lingering anger and distrust, especially within the liberal community (full disclosure here; I was a member of that group) about his prior work with Joe McCarthy, and the same held true in Hollywood. The telling moment for me in the book is when Frank Mankiewicz who has been working assiduously on the campaign, rushes to a Venice, California fundraiser where the host had abruptly shifted his allegiance from RFK to Eugene McCarthy.
Once there, Mankiewicz engaged in an extended, charming conversation about the movies of the golden 40s with Myrna Loy, who was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy and had been an activist liberal and brave opponent of the HUAC investigations in Hollywood. My personal opinion is that Mankiewicz was there to do damage control, because he, as the son of Herman (of “Citizen Kane” fame) Mankiewicz, knew how far those Red Scare memories, allegiances, and battle lines went. He wanted to be certain they didn’t skew election results off course. RFK did win New York and, California, but alas, we’ll never know what the end result would have been.
I return to Stephan Sills’ prophetic lyrics, “Hey listen, what’s that sound? Everybody look at what’s goin’ down.” The song hovers in the air in this marvelously told and evocative book of a time when we had hope that things could be changed in America for the betterment of all. Reading it is to experience and/or re-experience the era when JFK and his brother Robert Francis Kennedy found their calling and voices, pulling people, like Sweet William, a working-class guy, aka Peace Corps volunteer, activist, and wonderful writer in their wake. It is also an important cautionary tale for us now of how things can fall apart.
I highly recommend this book.
Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65), is the daughter of political progressives who went to work in the FDR era Farm Security Camp for dislocated Dust Bowl farmers, featured at the end of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and who later worked in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security camp during WWII, organizing, with the prisoners, a camp-wide member-operated consumer Co-operative system. Mueller is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review in 2020.