Peter Dale Scott on Trump, the Deep State, the JFK Assassination, the RFK Jr. Campaign, and Life at 95

Peter Dale Scott on Trump, the Deep State, the JFK Assassination, the RFK Jr. Campaign, and Life at 95
American Values 2024 | January 23, 2024

We first bonded with Peter Dale Scott over a wine list. We were in the research phase of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, the 2007 New York Times bestseller authored by David Talbot

Robert Kennedy Jr.’s secret search for the truth about the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. It was outside Washington D.C., during the dinner break of our first venture into the arcana of a JFK assassination conference. After a day of listening to the intensely detailed presentations given by experts who had studied the subject for decades, we thought our heads might explode.

In search of some clarity — and sustenance — we tagged along with a small group of conference speakers for dinner at a small Italian restaurant. Everyone was still talking about their work and ignoring the menu — except a distinguished-looking gentleman at the end of the table who was asking for a wine list. We saw him and thought: That’s the man we want to talk to. We chatted with him about Italy (Karen had lived there as a student; he had taught Dante) and how we loved a good Chianti.

The distinguished-looking man, with shaggy white hair and sharp Scottish-Canadian features, was Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat to Poland, now-retired University of California-Berkeley professor in English literature, grand old scholar of Kennedy assassination research, author of numerous nonfiction books, introducer of the term “deep state” into U.S. power studies, respected poet (“Coming to Jakarta”) and close friend of the late Daniel Ellsberg, Leonard Cohen and others who have made political and cultural history.

Years later, we were again chatting with Peter – this time in his hometown of Berkeley, California, during a car ride after lunch on a rainy afternoon – when he told us a story that led to David’s other New York Times bestseller, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government.

A dozen years later, the three of us are still talking about the Kennedy story and other pressing topics — yes, usually over good food and wine.

The following interview was conducted over a bottle of lovely French red a week before Christmas at Peter’s home in Berkeley. We were mindful of the 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination, which sparked a flurry of reexamination in the media, as well as Peter’s 95th birthday on January 11, 2024.

These days Peter is watchful about his time, realizing it’s fleeting. He remains intellectually active, authoring two forthcoming books, Reading the Dream, a curiously hopeful book about the human flaws that underlie our political calamities, and Dreamcraft, a new book of poems. He no longer uses the term “deep state,” proposing a different way of understanding power in the U.S. He’s upbeat about the future of American democracy, an experiment that is very beleaguered these days. He’s supportive of the independent candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., with some caveats. And at this late stage of life, he has some thoughts about life itself.

Kroft/ Talbot: There seems to be a contradiction between poetry and politics. Yet you’ve devoted yourself to both.

Scott: As the poem that I wrote just before this interview says, the “windshield in front of our eyes” is often “smeared by journalists/academics and worst of all our friends/ with the grime of facts.” So, we don’t see the future properly. But poets affect the future.

When Czeslaw Milosz, whom I knew and whom I wrote a book about, won his Nobel Prize in poetry, he said that poetry not only foresees the future but “speeds its coming.”

I believe that culture is defined by all kinds of literature — culture is a product of everything that is said and written. And poetry plays an unusual part in that. Among the poets there is a special range, a kind of super range — poets whose words eventually change the direction of culture.

So that’s what our civilization needs now, an epic poem?

We certainly would be better off if we had a great poet. Of course, we had Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. And songwriters qualify too. Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize, and it could have been Leonard Cohen — either of them deserved it. Lyrics that are sung are not really comparable to epics, but they fulfill the same role.

Dylan’s song “Murder Most Foul” (released in 2020) was elliptical, of course. But it told us the truth about the Kennedy assassination.

Yes. I just had a five-hour conversation with a stranger, who is obviously a fan. He left me with a CD of “Murder Most Foul.” I have not yet listened to it, but I know the lyrics. I don’t know how it was perceived, or will be. But Bob has already made the grade.

But most of the epic poets you mention are in the past. We need someone now.

Don’t count on it. They usually come too late for the current revolution, but in time for the next. That’s how the spine of culture works. Cultural history, cultural development moves slowly. I have a word for that: ethogeny. I didn’t make it up. It was invented to deal with animal development of habits, but it fits very well to our ethos, the cocoon of morals that we live in and that shapes us.

I think that everyone reading this interview will be thinking, Yes, but what does Scott think we can do now to make the world better?

Well, the answer is prepare for the next revolution. In other words, don’t let Bobby go too far in (his 2024 presidential campaign). I want Bobby to run, but not to be president next year.

Why not?

Because the revolution is not this election, it’s maybe the next election. It hasn’t been prepared for. I believe that you have to have a change in culture first — a cultural revolution first to change people’s minds. The “revolution” has not been prepared for. I would love to see him, Bobby Jr., run very hard, saying the things he’s saying. He’s saying very good things. But he doesn’t have a party. He has people. You’ve got to have a party.

(Editorial note: After we spoke with Scott, RFK Jr. announced last week he was creating a We the People party in several states, because the bar for required signatures to appear on the ballot is lower for candidates representing a political party than for those running independently. The states include California, Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, and North Carolina.)

Thanks for reading The Kennedy Beacon!

But the party that RFK Jr. was born into and tried to lead in 2024, the Democratic Party, essentially evicted him.

He needs to organize another party. You need to fight party with party. He needs to keep organizing. See, his father didn’t have to do that. He had the Democratic Party, or part of it. And it was very important that Robert Kennedy reached out to allies like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the UFW and Paul Schrade of the UAW when he ran for president in 1968. I don’t know enough about Bobby Jr.’s campaign to know if he’s made those alliances with unions and minority groups. But he needs to build a big, winning coalition. And you can’t do that in six months, or a year.

By the way, the movement for change I’m talking about has to be nonviolent. America will meet violence with overwhelming violence.

So, your ideal for social change is something like the Solidarity movement in Poland at the end of the Cold War?

Yes, but I don’t want to define the ideal. People are deeply divided now and I want to help find a way they can be talking to each other again, to agree on a next step.

But that’s what Bobby wants to do, heal the divisions in this country. Maybe he can spark a cultural and political revolution at the same time.

Yes, but not in six or nine months, not in the current election cycle. He will need more time.

But we don’t have that much time! (shared laughter)

Yes, we do, yes, we do. If we don’t, it’s hopeless…

Trump is dominating the headlines again, with many Democrats fearing he will roll through the courts and beat “Sleepy Joe” in the fall. If Trump wins, does the deep state lose?

Trump is two-faced. If he’s reelected in November, he’s promising to abide by the JFK Records Act now and release all the remaining documents. But he could’ve done that a few years ago as president – instead, he caved to the CIA and kept the documents hidden.

He says he kept us out of war, but our troops kept fighting in Afghanistan under him and he crows about how we bombed ISIS to smithereens in Syria.

One fact here: Trump came in promising to vastly increase the military budget, which he did — he vastly increased it. The big spending increase went to Congress, and this was the “Do Nothing” Congress. Did they do nothing? No! It went to the Senate and by a lopsided vote, they increased the war budget even more — proving, if anyone didn’t already know, that whatever sharp differences Republicans and Democrats have, both parties are always going to vote to increase the military budget. We will not solve the real problems of this country until we break that mold.

The JFK Records Act leads us to another big question, because you’ve been doing research on the Kennedy assassination for so long. As another researcher once said, “Peter Dale Scott has forgotten more about the Kennedy assassination than we’ll ever know.” So, the big question is why was JFK killed?

We don’t live in a system like a monarchy. We live in a state of chaos — a kind of Hobbesian state of nature, with different, powerful oligarchs — and they’ve been battling each other in the U.S. ever since they met to draft the Articles of Confederation. And at least one of the states — South Carolina — was there to guarantee the protection of slavery, because in their state at least 60 percent of the people were black. So, this racist system was baked into America at the beginning. It was a kind of built-in conflict at the top level, which is what I think is now running this country, rather than a “deep state.” I was never happy about that term, even though I helped import it to the United States from Turkey, and said so when I wrote about it. It sounds like it’s a “thing.” What we actually live in is a kind of Hobbesian condition of chaos, a new Gilded Age, with greater and greater accumulations of private power.

Yes, but you sidestepped the question – why was President Kennedy eliminated? What made him a target?

Well, he was threatening an end to the Cold War, which was the basis of the military economy that had made America prosperous since 1953. He was threatening to ease us off the war economy, and to deal with problems at home like poverty and racism.

The Cold Warriors who ran the country maintained a constant state of alarm, constant preparedness. The sociologist C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, recognized how they created a national security emergency “without foreseeable end.” He called these men “crackpot realists…In the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own.”

A “paranoid reality” that was – and still is – very profitable for the military-industrial complex.

People forget President Kennedy’s 1963 Atomic Test Ban Treaty, which ended all nuclear arms testing above ground. It sounds petty now, but it wasn’t petty then. There had been no treaty with the Soviet Union since 1955 when Washington and Moscow agreed by treaty to respect the neutrality of Austria.

During the debate about the atomic test ban, the Cold War lobby and the media were saying you cannot conclude a deal with the Russians because they are Communists — but JFK did it. And worse than that, Kennedy — rightly — didn’t trust his CIA. So, the president was privately talking to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Bobby was privately talking to Georgi Bolshakov, the Soviet representative in Washington, as a back-channel to Khrushchev in the Kremlin. Well, the CIA and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) knew about the back-channel. And a document that purports to be a DIA document — I think it’s authentic — comes out 12 years later, an analysis that Kennedy is doing something treasonous, illegal. That agency, the DIA, might have helped do him in. Ironically, the DIA was created by Kennedy, who distrusted naval intelligence and army intelligence.

Kennedy gave two important speeches, one day apart in June 1963. In the first one, the so-called Peace Speech, he said we should empathize with our enemy, the Russians. At the height of the Cold War, he said, “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

And the very next day, he gave his swiftly composed civil rights speech on national TV, responding to the turmoil in the South, including Governor George Wallace, how he stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama to try to prevent two black students from integrating the university. The president told the nation that racial justice was “a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

I can see, and I believe I’m right in seeing, that there was a kind of retro Southern presence in the military. The Army slow-marched to the University of Mississippi in 1962 and to the University of Alabama the following year, after President Kennedy ordered Army troops to restore order on those campuses.

I could go on, but I won’t go on. There were probably five or six reasons Kennedy was killed —- it was a coalition that killed Kennedy. And it was a coalition that killed Kennedy in a way that they knew the media would have to come in and make it look like it had been a lone nut who had killed Kennedy.

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So, was the media part of the coalition?

Not in the actual assassination, but to cover it up, absolutely. It was planned that they were to play that role.

And who was organizing the whole thing, in your mind?

I’ve always said I’m here to analyze what was happening, the forces behind it, not to have a point of view about who did it. David, I know that in your book (The Devil’s Chessboard), you wrote that essentially it was the CIA — Allen Dulles, who was fired as agency director by JFK, and the network around him. I do think they were in it. But I have a whole chapter in my book Deep Politics about military intelligence — more importantly, the Military Intelligence Reserve, which interfaces with oil corporations, and had a conspiratorial unit in Dallas exploring petroleum deposits in the Soviet Union. I believe they were at least as involved in the murder as the CIA.

But the JFK plot was a coalition. The anti-civil rights people in the South were also part of it. I refer people to the Joseph Milteer story I talk about in my book Dallas 1963. There’s a white Southern factor that helped to kill Kennedy.

To paraphrase Jim Douglass (author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters), why does the JFK assassination still haunt us?

I could go on and on and on about this, all this fuss now about truth and propaganda, about “fake facts” and so on. The truth is, we’ve been living with “fake facts” ever since the Warren Report. The Warren Report is so phony that even some of the men who drafted it, and signed it, didn’t believe it! Some were quite vocal about it. They were signing a fake document. To believe the Warren Report you have to believe that one bullet was able to cause seven wounds in two different people, hit a bone, and then fall unscathed onto a stretcher. It’s all in the report. And if you believe that, you’re nuts.

(Editorial note: The Warren Report’s “magic bullet theory” was finally “buried in concrete,” according to forensics expert Cyril Wecht, following former Secret Service agent Paul Landis’s recent account that he found the pristine bullet in the presidential limousine.)

This is the bullet believed by the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Warren Commission) to have caused wounds to both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connelly. It came to be termed the "magic bullet" by those who questioned the Commission's "single bullet theory".

National Archives and Records Administration , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And we all condition ourselves to say, Well, something went wrong with the JFK investigation, but I don’t want to think about that because then I’d have to think about everything.

Of course, a few of us do start thinking about everything and I came up with Deep Politics. But most of us, and you can’t blame them, they have to live lives and they have to earn incomes. They can’t afford to think about the assassination too much.

One last question about the Kennedy assassination. Why after all this time are you the only prominent intellectual in the country who has looked seriously into this historic event? Where were leading intellectuals on the left, like Noam Chomsky?

He won’t touch it. I’ll talk about it.

We read a quote of Chomsky where he said Kennedy was a warmonger and not worth discussing.

Well, I know about this issue because when the Pentagon Papers were released in 1971, they were later published by a maverick press, Beacon Press. The following year, they commissioned a follow-up volume of essays which was edited by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. I was asked to write an essay, in which I stated that President Kennedy had plans, which he already began implementing, to withdraw most U.S. troops out of Vietnam by 1965. Chomsky was out of the country at the time so I sent my essay to Howard Zinn and he, thinking like Chomsky, said, “You don’t want to publish this.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “It sounds like you think it would make a difference if we had a different president.” And I said “Yes, it did make a difference! That’s the whole point of my essay.” And Howard said, “Peter, that’s bad politics. It’s the system that’s wrong. You’ve got to be against the system.”

And that’s what Noam was about. Noam is not a Marxist, he’s an anarchist. He doesn’t want to see any good in Kennedy because he wants to get rid of the whole system. And replace it with what? I won’t go any further because Noam and I respect each other, but it’s quite clear that on the Kennedy record Noam and I have disagreed.

You’ve had a difficult time over the years getting your work about the Kennedy assassination published, haven’t you?

Yes. In 1970 I did a book called The War Conspiracy. And my thinking about the Kennedy assassination then was very primitive compared to what it is now. But I figured you couldn’t think about the state of war that we were in without thinking about the Kennedy assassination. I sent the manuscript to the publisher, Bobbs-Merrill. I only found out later that the head of their legal department at the time was William Harvey, who had been in the CIA and is someone many people suspect was involved in the assassination.

Bill Harvey? The CIA’s former assassination chief? He was working there?

Yes, he was the head of the legal department at Bobbs-Merill, which was a tiny little publishing house in Indianapolis. It normally did children’s literature like The Wizard of Oz, but suddenly had got into a phase of requesting manuscripts from people like me. They had gone to Ramparts magazine, and Ramparts made a deal with them without first consulting me.

Anyway, Bobbs-Merrill said to me, “We think you’ll have a better book if you save your four chapters on the Kennedy assassination for a different book.” They published the expurgated version of the book, but it was buried. They absolutely did not promote it.

So, it was a catch-and-kill situation?

It was a catch-and-kill situation. The word I think is “privished.”

Privished?

Instead of being published, you make it a private thing for the author and his friends. (laughs)

How have you managed to maintain your cheerful disposition, despite the efforts to censor you?

It sounds trivial, but I think I have an advantage in that I was not born in America. And I see America from outside, without getting furious. I think most Americans, when they begin to see the terrible things America has done — they’ve had president after president guilty of war crimes — either they suppress the thought, because it means changing their life too much to accept that thought, or they acknowledge it and get furious. They never say: Well, that’s the bad side and this is the good side.

And that’s what you say?

That’s what I say. I say it in my book that’s coming out, Reading the Dream. I say it’s important at all times to maintain balance. And don’t get 100 percent into an emotion or a single point of view. Realize that there are conflicting values and you have to reach a compromise. And the American political system, at its best, does just that. It’s a very crude way of reaching compromise. It could be a lot better, but it’s the best in the world. So, let’s keep it.

I’d like to quote something from the end of my book that is pertinent here. It’s my last paragraph: “In this post-secular time, passionate divisions, sometimes between retro and generative spiritualities, threaten more and greater wars. So let each of us, mindful of our own internal yin-yang doubleness, resolve to balance the urgent need to preserve the best in this precious world with the urgent need to make it better. Hopefully this book may contribute to a less fervid politics and a healthier, friendlier culture.”

But isn’t it true what the Irish say? Nobody throws themselves into politics with more passion than the Irish. But they still say that politics will break your heart.

Well, that’s very true. That’s why you have to balance politics with something else. In my case it’s poetry. And I’m not the only one. The investigative author Douglas Valentine, who has done good work about the CIA and drugs, also balances his life by writing poetry. Other political activists and writers take up athletics or travel, whatever — you have to keep balance in your life. I still take longish walks, every day. I used to play the piano. Now I don’t.

What did you play?

Mozart, Beethoven. I was trained, briefly, to be a concert pianist. But they kept saying that if I wanted to do it, I’d have to dedicate my life to it. I realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to do that. This was all when I was 13 or 14.

I had a friend who came to Berkeley in the ‘70s to work with me on the JFK assassination case and he went insane. Somebody else committed suicide. And some people who were looking down that dark well in the past were murdered, but that’s a whole different story. The deeper into it you get, the harder it is to keep balance. I take long breaks — I’ve actually retired (from giving interviews on this subject). I’m doing this for you.

Anyway, that’s my message – search for balance in your life. Take a walk, listen to music, savor a glass of wine.

The mind-body connection?

Right

Well, you’ll live forever, then.

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