Four Died Trying:
The End of the Sixties
Four Died Trying
In 2003, Lisa Pease and myself wrote a book entitled The Assassinations. To my knowledge, that was the first volume ever published that addressed all four major political assassinations of the sixties: John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. I thought this was an excellent topic for a film and I had thought about doing a documentary on the subject. But it never came to pass.
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Twenty years later, it has come to pass. Producer Libby Handros and director John Kirby have dropped the first installment of a multi-part series called, appropriately enough, Four Died Trying. (The reader can see it both on Amazon and Apple). At the beginning of the film they roll a long title card saying that in the 1960’s four popular leaders tried to change the status quo in America, by fighting for equality and justice. All four of them were murdered by the end of the decade. Those killings would alter America forever.
The main credit sequence, which is thematically adoit, now follows. It tries to depict the tenor of a long ago Americana through various MSM depictions e.g. My Three Sons, and Gunsmoke. Filtering through this bucolic oasis come announcements of the four assassinations and their presumed fall guys. But near the close of this sequence Kirby places in voices of some qualified doubt. This leads into the first major part of the film which is titled, “What They Tried”.
It begins with the first case: the assassination of President Kennedy. The film features some interesting and honest interview subjects. For example, Stephen Schlesinger (the son of Arthur Schlesinger); Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert Kennedy Jr.; Stephen Kennedy Smith, the son of JFK’s sister Jean; John Donovan Jr, the son of Kennedy attorney John Donovan; and St. John Hunt, the son of Howard Hunt--among others.
The film itself begins with comments and observations on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April, 1961. Quite properly this is depicted as a deliberate deception of President Kennedy by the CIA. The authors of the plan knew it had no chance of succeeding and they expected that JFK would send in the Navy and Marines to salvage the operation and save himself from defeat. He did not. But as St. John Hunt states, the people in the CIA and the Cubans involved did not see it that way. They despised him for not committing American forces. But this experience had some painful benefit to it, for as Kennedy proclaimed: “I should have known better than to listen to a bunch of goddamn experts.”
Which leads us to the Missile Crisis. Kennedy did not confine himself to the “experts” there. He included people like his brother Robert and Ted Sorenson in the deliberations. Bobby Kennedy contributed some valuable advice and this allowed for a peaceful solution to be managed. Vietnam is reviewed chiefly by Bobby Kennedy Jr. and James Galbraith. They both describe President Kennedy’s policy as one that would only allow for advisors and no combat troops. And those advisors were being withdrawn at the time of his death. In a cogent screen capture, they actually have Kennedy announcing this on camera. Oliver Stone caps this by saying that Kennedy felt it was a Vietnamese war, and whether we were winning or losing did not matter. America was getting out.
The film now segues to the Malcolm X case. Again, some well-chosen commentators are featured e.g. authors Karl Evanzz, Peter Bailey and Zak Kondo, attorney Clarence Jones and Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz. This preview begins with Malcolm being questioned about his past comments referring to white Americans as being “blue eyed devils”. This dialogue occurs after his separation from the Nation of Islam, and so he states that when he made that comment he was speaking for Elijah Muhammad. He has now changed his view, and as Evannz characterizes him, he was now “unchained”.
The segment concentrates on Malcolm’s attempt to get a resolution through the United Nations’ General Assembly condemning segregation in the USA and comparing it to other African states, like the Union of South Africa. After his return from Mecca in the spring of 1964, Malcolm’s intent was to broaden the American civil rights struggle to an international human rights confrontation. Using some of his speeches, Handros and Kirby make the case that Malcolm was now taking on the entire Western power structure. Jones comments that this was now a wide ranging propaganda battle, in which the CIA is attempting to counter some of Malcolm’s influence at the UN.
In a provocative insight, Evanzz and Jones comment that there was an attempt behind the scenes to get King to come on board with Malcolm on this issue. This included Jones speaking to actor Ossie Davis, and Davis trying to arrange a meeting at Sydney Poitier’s home and including Harry Belafonte in the conference. Evanzz then notes that the FBI was spying on Jones. And they found out about this attempted nexus between the two prominent African-American leaders. When they assimilated this information is when the FBI’s COINTELPRO against both men went into high gear.
The King case naturally follows. The segment accents King’s battle with the White House over the escalation of the Vietnam War to the detriment of funding for the Great Society. It also focuses on King’s preparations for the Poor People’s March in Washington DC. That demonstration was scheduled to begin in May of 1968. This planned protest allows some of the commentators, like Isaac Farris who was King’s nephew, to bring up the issue of redistribution of wealth, which was one of the major points of the Poor People’s March. This fuses into the whole dispute King had with President Johnson, namely that the Vietnam War was undermining both the Great Society and the War on Poverty. King was also harping on the themes of annual rioting in the USA, and relating it to the senseless and excessive violence in Indochina. And the film uses appropriate images to illustrate just what America was becoming. The film-makers include King’s famous statement about America becoming the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
The practical aim of the Poor People’s March was to broaden King’s populist coalition from one based on African-Americans and civil rights to an economic cause for poor people of all nationalities and races. As reporter Earl Caldwell and author Bill Pepper comment, the goal was to gather 500,000 people in Washington, twice as many as for the March on Washington. Andrew Young states that 3,000 of these would be professionally trained in an attempt to shut down the city. Thus King became a vigilant danger to J Edgar Hoover and the FBI; Hoover’s fear of a Black Messiah was materializing. As former congressman Waler Fauntroy says, he had to be taken out.
King’s complaint about Vietnam meshes with the intro to the Bobby Kennedy segment. Senator Kennedy comments that the American economy cannot create guns and butter when we spend in 3 ½ weeks on Vietnam what we do all year on poverty programs. And although Johnson liked to preach about an increasing Gross National Product, Bobby made a famous speech about what GNP does not measure: namely the deteriorating social fabric of America.
That speech was worked on by Adam Walinsky who is a major figure in this part of the film. And he talks about Kennedy’s initial reluctance to run against Johnson in 1968. The film strongly suggests his choice was changed by the massive scope and success of the Tet offensive in late January of 1968. Kennedy responded to the shock by saying that victory was simply not possible in Vietnam and he was sickened by Johnson’s spiraling escalations of the war. One of the recurring themes of this Prologue is the Kennedy brothers’ visit to Indochina in 1951, and how this illustrated to them that the French defeat there presaged what would happen to America if the USA tried to intervene. Namely that nationalism and the drive for independence would defeat any combination of imperialism and colonialism.
David Talbot comments on Bobby Kennedy’s brief campaign in 1968. He quite rightly states that no other presidential candidate ever provoked the kind of outpouring of political passion that RFK did that year. People would grab at him just to get a cufflink or a shirt sleeve. He represented the last hopes of what would soon be a lost generation. This was especially true after the abdication of Johnson and the assassination of King. And the film shows clips from Kennedy’s great speech in Indianapolis on the night King was killed. After which Kennedy commented in private, “My God, what is my country coming to?”
After this, there is a preview of a section on the press, and how the MSM buried the real story. Marie Fonzi specifically mentions the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird, and Zak Kondo talks about how the FBI would pay off certain reporters to print stories virtually unchanged from how the Bureau wrote them. There are specific examples of how certain aspects of the assassinations were concealed, e.g. the shots from two directions in the RFK case, and the rendering of the murder of Malcolm as simply part of a feud within the Black Muslims. There is a rather long segment about how Life magazine cooperated with the government in its famous rearranging of captions for certain frames of the Zapruder film. And the late Vince Salandria comments on how the JFK case became a prime example of how the media became virtual accessories to the national security state.
The final segment deals with the after effects of these murders. It begins with Johnson’s passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. This opened the floodgates for direct American intervention in Indochina, something JFK was never going to do. James Lawson comments that the four assassinations stopped the rise of the Power to the People movement, of democracy in the streets. Walinsky states that the cumulative effect showed that the Powers that Be were more intent on making the American people feel hopeless than in preserving any pretext of democracy.
It’s a fast moving, cleverly edited and adroitly sound mixed film that is thematically important for our time period: to see how far America has descended. Most of the interview subjects are fine and cogent; there are a few I could have done without e. g. Roger Stone and Peter Janney. But, all in all, this is an interesting film that is well worth watching. It is the initial part of a multi-part series which I will be reporting on as it appears. It is well worth your time.
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