Kennedy and the Nasser letters

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 18 Jan 2018

Correspondence between John F Kennedy and Gamal Abdel-Nasser shows friendship and rapprochement that could open new avenues to explaining his assassination and that of his brother

One of the books I brought back with me from my visit to Paris last month was an exciting novel called Ils vont tuer Robert Kennedy (They are going to kill Robert Kennedy). It is written by someone who is an expert at digging into historical events and emerging with new and carefully documented results: Marc Dugain. I finished the novel just as the centennial of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s birthday approached. It was the link, which I had not expected and which the French author may not have realised, between the late Arab leader and the conclusions reached in the novel.

The novel takes as its premise that the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 was integrally connected to the assassination of his older brother, John F Kennedy, five years earlier. Much has not been revealed about the two crimes, which had been minutely planned and executed. Even the identity of the real perpetrator remains unknown both cases. Lee Harvey Oswald did not shoot John F Kennedy and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan did not kill Robert, the author maintains. The US president was killed by a bullet that struck from in front while he was waving to the crowds in Texas from his open vehicle, but Oswald was situated behind the presidential motorcade at the time of the incident. The reverse applied in the case of Robert Kennedy who was assassinated in Las Vegas. He was shot from behind and was hit in the neck whereas Sirhan, who originally came from Palestine, was in front of Robert. In both cases, the defendants were eliminated in order to forestall investigations into them.

In both cases, the purpose was to put an end to a political trend that was represented by John F Kennedy and that had been championed again by Robert who, at the time, was eyeing the Oval Office. President Kennedy represented a new outlook in American policy, one that contrasted starkly with the isolationist conservative outlook of the Republican Party. In fact, he was more open-minded and progressive on a number of issues than the core of his own Democratic Party. Perhaps the nuclear facedown over Cuba best illustrates the wisdom of that president and his readiness to reach an understanding with the Soviet Union, the eternal enemy of the American ultra-right. Dugain, in his novel, depicts how much the Vietnam War hawks benefitted from Kennedy’s absence. Kennedy had been trying to bring the war to an end, which riled pro-war lobbies affiliated with the military-industrial complex.

I recently read some important correspondence between President Kennedy and Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The communication was initiated by Kennedy. The American president, in his letters, was clearly interested in drawing closer to the Arabs and sincerely attempting to understand the Arab viewpoint on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nasser, on numerous occasions in the correspondence attempted to draw the US president’s attention to the fact that the conflict had its roots in the Palestinian question and tried to underscore a number of essential truths that US foreign policy always overlooked due to certain domestic electoral considerations that Nasser did not hesitate to point out to Kennedy.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was the first to draw attention to this correspondence. In fact, he published two or three of the letters in one of his articles. But I have since discovered that there are over 10 letters, in addition to the letters in which Kennedy would ask the Egyptian president his opinion on certain Third World issues such as national liberation causes and especially the question of the Congo.

In 1963, the year in which Kennedy was assassinated, the understanding between the two presidents had reached an unprecedented level in the history of Egyptian-US bilateral relations. On 16 August of that year, Kennedy wrote to Nasser:

“As the relations between our two countries were founded on the basis of fruitful cooperation and mutual understanding, I believe that we have reached an agreement that the problems that arise between us can always be discussed fully, openly, calmly and confidently. I agree with you that the causes for difference between us will always remain due to our particular circumstances or the pressures from other powers. However, the mutual understanding will keep those differences within intransgressible bounds.

“From this standpoint and in the framework of this understanding, Mr President, I have asked Ambassador Badeau to discuss with you some matters of importance to both of us. I am confident that, as you reflect on them, you will find that these matters, as difficult as they are, fall within the bounds that should not be transgressed.

“ … I have learned that Dr Al-Qaysouni plans to visit the US again next September. I will tell you that he will be very welcome and that the secretary of state will be pleased to receive him and will do all in his ability to facilitate his task here. I have followed, with great admiration, his skilful management, under your wise guidance as a statesman, of the conference that was held recently in Cairo and that brought substantial results and aspirations for future for horizons.

“I look forward to communicating with you soon, at which point I would like to review with you some events and movements in the international domain and, also, to address developing the relations between our countries in the same frank and friendly manner that has characterised the exchange of views between us recently. At the same time, I wish you continued success in your great efforts towards enhancing the political interests and economic and social welfare of your people.”

Undoubtedly, certain political circles in the US were greatly disturbed by that American-Arab rapprochement. It confirms that putting an end to the Kennedy policy would not only serve the interests of the Vietnam war lobby but also those of the Zionist lobby, which benefited greatly from the arrival of a president with different outlooks — Lyndon Johnson, who was president at the time of the 1967 war. This could not have happened had it not been for the assassination of Kennedy. Afterwards, his brother Robert, who served as attorney general in his brother’s administration, would meet the same fate. He had inherited the mantle of John F Kennedy’s progressive policies and vowed to fulfil them in his campaign speeches if he were elected president. Therefore, he, too, had to be eliminated in accordance with the intrigue that unfolds in Marc Dugain’s book.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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