While some hopeful progressives continue to fantasize about Joe Biden as the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, another, more disturbing historical analogy might be relevant. Biden is the first president since John F. Kennedy to face an active threat from right-wing extremism in the military, defined broadly to include veterans as well as current soldiers.
The Department of Justice arrested approximately 500 people for participating in the January 6 insurrection, at least 45 of whom were veterans or active-duty soldiers. Of those 45, a quarter belonged to extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Responding to the military involvement in January 6, Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense, has made cracking down on right-wing extremism in the ranks a priority, pushing for an updating of the definition of extremism.
The extent of insurrectionist sentiment was further underlined in June when Michael Flynn, a retired general and onetime national security adviser under Donald Trump, explicitly called for a Myanmar-style military coup. After complaints, Flynn walked back his remarks. In May, a letter signed by more than 120 retired generals and admirals cast doubt on the 2020 election and accused the Biden administration of pushing the United States toward a “Marxist form of tyrannical government.”
Since March, right-wing agitators like Tucker Carlson of Fox News have been deriding what they call the “woke military.” This new propaganda line is best understood as an attempt to blunt Biden’s efforts to weed out right-wing extremists in the military.
The spectacle of a liberal Catholic president butting heads with reactionary military men and veterans echoes the Kennedy presidency. The bipartisan Cold War consensus had created an opening for the far right to use extremist anti-communism as an entry point to the military rank and file. In 1960 a scandal erupted when an Air Force manual accused the National Council of Churches—a mainstream Protestant organization—of being riddled with Reds. The next year, a similar story emerged about Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker teaching troops that Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were “definitely pink” and journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Lippmann (both centrist liberals) were “confirmed communists.”
Walker wasn’t the only right-wing general in the military at the time. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who served as Kennedy’s aide, records that military leaders “hunted and fished with right-wing politicians, supplied them aircraft for trips home and showed up at their receptions. The alliance between the military and the right disturbed the Kennedys.”
With his direct attacks on Democratic politicians, Walker had gone too far. Kennedy cashiered the general, who immediately became an openly racist agitator, helping foment an anti-civil-rights riot in Mississippi in 1962 that resulted in two people dead and 300 injured. In a speech before the riot, Walker called for white Mississippians to “rally to the cause of freedom in righteous indignation, violent vocal protest, and bitter silence under the flag of Mississippi at the use of Federal troops.”
Though Walker quickly recanted these words, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had him arrested for insurrection. But as the historian Paul Matzko, writing in The Washington Post, notes, “The administration then went too far. The Justice Department claimed, with no substantiation, that ‘it held some doubt as to General Walker’s competence to stand trial,’ and had him placed in isolation in a maximum-security ward at a federal medical center for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. After protest from the ACLU and the noted psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, the Justice Department freed Walker after five days.” With this overstep, the Kennedy administration turned Walker into a martyr and enhanced the prestige of this dangerous veteran.
John F. Kennedy’s response to military insurrectionists offers mixed lessons. His political response, including the deft use of cultural messaging, was successful. In a much-noted speech, Kennedy warned of extremists looking for a “man on horseback.” He also admired the novel Seven Days in May (1962), by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, about a faction in the Pentagon trying to overthrow a liberal president.
“It’s possible,” Kennedy said privately, musing about what would unfold if there were more failures like the botched invasion of Cuba. “It could happen in this country.” He also gave his imprimatur to the novel by allowing the director John Frankenheimer to film scenes at the White House for the Hollywood adaptation. (The movie was released in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination.) In effect, the political strategy was to foreclose a coup by calling attention to the dangers.
Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, wrote an extensive memo with his brother Victor that guided the responses of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Some of the Reuthers’ advice, notably using the IRS to go after right-wing groups, was of dubious constitutionality, an overreaction similar to the attempt to confine Walker to an asylum. But as Matzko notes in his fine book The Radio Right, the Reuther memo also “called for toning down anti-Communist rhetoric by Democrats, [who] had gotten used to a kind of rhetorical arms race with Republicans in the McCarthy era.”
This is the most crucial lesson of Kennedy’s run-in with the reactionary military. Just as the Cold War consensus created the hothouse environment in which Strangelovian lunatics like Walker could flourish, so the Michael Flynns of our own time are a product of the Global War on Terrorism, which has allowed all sorts of unhinged conspiracy theorists a path to power—not least of them the former president.
Extremism in the military is a political problem first and foremost and a law enforcement problem only secondarily. To solve the political problem, Biden has to stand firmly behind anti-racist education in the armed forces (now attacked by the right-wing media as “critical race theory”), be ready to sack any uniformed officer who steps out of line—and constantly and loudly remind the military that its oath is to the Constitution and not to any political faction.