After I read Jenna Loyd’s Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978, I couldn’t help but to keep thinking more about John McCone. McCone becomes the subject of discussion in this book for his role as the chair of the “blue ribbon” commission chartered to find the reasons for the Watts uprising of 1965 in Los Angeles, California. The then governor Pat Brown appointed the (predominantly white) members of what came to be commonly called the McCone Commission. It plays a relatively brief—yet crucial—part of the deeper story of Health Rights because the commission “found that the area’s poor health indices and scarce medical facilities contributed to the uprising” (63).

But health and body politics are not merely a matter of data metrics or designated spaces for health treatment, as Loyd painstakingly shows in the larger story. The portrait of Los Angeles in Health Rights reveals that myriad struggles over the meaning and imagination of the city in the 60s and 70s revolved around reclaiming health management in communities — and doing so in the face of a booming warfare and technology sector that produced negative health effects by way of deadly weapons, environmental pollution, and concentrated poverty. I valued this contribution because I so often find it challenging to prove to students or members of the public that urban investments in shiny, new hospital facilities do not automatically translate into improved health for urban dwellers. In fact, sometimes these structures, rising to the level of symbols of state achievement and progress, might be overshadowing—and facilitating, even—ways in which the state administrates forms of violence, racism, sexism, and genderism. This overlap between state and warfare rarely is so well summarized by a single figure than the case of John McCone, which is why I hope to concentrate in this brief essay on the ideas of this book as guided, so to speak, by this cloak-and-dagger historical personality.

John McCone (1902-1991) was the consummate combination of public officer and behind-the-scenes capitalist. His life would provide excellent source material for writing a villain character in film. (A more benign, mutant-fighting character based on him appears briefly in X-Men: First Class, 2011). First trained as an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley and then ascending the corporate ladder as an industrialist, he then held appointments at the head of the Atomic Energy Commission under Eisenhower and the Central Intelligence Agency under Kennedy and Johnson. McCone was thus able to get a hand on all levers of governmental power and he seemed to use them in unapologetic fashion. Most infamously, after his government time, McCone was called to testify in Congress about an alleged pipeline of funds between a company he directed, International Telephone and Telegraph, and bribes to lawmakers who would stand behind Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup to overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile (Fowler 1991).

McCone’s career certainly calls for some kind of larger study that is yet to be executed, looking meticulously at archives and documents, though we may never know the full extent of everything this man did while advancing his many interests. He appears only as one of many players in Loyd’s book. As part of the Watts examination, he was capable of good deeds too, such as spearheading the campaign, in keeping with the report’s findings, to fund the construction of King-Drew Medical Center in Watts—a symbol, as I suggested earlier, of state infallibility and accomplishment. But beyond the text, McCone remains a haunting presence throughout my recollections as I try to boil down Loyd’s extensive and meticulous inquiry.

In Loyd’s account, we have a portrait of McCone as a quintessential Cold War urban technocrat. An experienced wielder of authority, he typifies those who are unable or unwilling to recognize state violence as a health aggravator and as a threat to human rights when it is exerted against selected peoples on designated enemy territory or in domestic zones of social exclusion. Here we have a man who was present at Oval Office debates about escalating the war in Vietnam, where he apparently presented the political drawbacks of a heavier incursion—the same official who wanted to remove Fidel Castro’s government by force, it should be mentioned. (He resigned from his CIA post soon thereafter) (Heist 2010). Paradoxically, he was incapable of recognizing the cruel similarities between urban policing and war, although the community pointed these out to the commission. By Loyd’s account, and that of many more, McCone’s people ultimately failed to comprehend what truly inspired the Watts fury, even when glaring at them in the face, such as the stark reality that police abuse victims were sometimes dying when they couldn’t be treated in time. Eminent historian Robert Fogelson wrote two years after Watts that, “the McCone Commission’s fiasco sharply illuminates why most white Americans have thus far failed to understand the Negro riots” (Fogelson 1967, 342).

Guy Debord, in an article not without its own set of racial essentialisms, nonetheless foreshadowed the commission’s failure (while also suggesting that black civil rights leaders become complicit in suppressing effective dissent). He says, “Until the Watts explosion, black civil rights demonstrations had been kept by their leaders within the limits of a legal system that tolerates,” as the McCone Commission would similarly accept, “the most appalling violence on the part of the police and the racists—as in last March’s march on Montgomery, Alabama” (Debord, 1965). This points precisely to the same weakness of the commission: modify anything except the root violence that begot the revolt. After all, the McCone Commission, in the final report that had the ominous title of “Violence: an End or a Beginning?,” included a chapter called “Law Enforcement – the thin thread,” as if to dismiss with a swift hand the systemic connections between state-sanctioned police brutality and Watts actions (“Report of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?” 1965).

McCone’s shallow understanding of the event, in a sense, encapsulates the larger urban tension that weaves throughout this admirable book. McCone’s willful ignorance epitomized a chasm between two visions of a city. One of these was locked into a militarized, policed and divided geopolitical model of urbanization that spawned the segregated and underserved Watts while committing extensive resources to external warfare. The alternative vision derives its grassroots social power from breaking down the myriad borderlines of Cold War geopolitics where violence is something that only happens afar and is provoked by enemies of the state. And, once shattering the myth of external violence, this alternate vision gravitated around signifiers of individual and collective health, with freedom from poverty, dispossession, discrimination, and police violence. At the helm of the Watts inquiry, but with his twin selves as industrial entrepreneur and spy master, McCone stands between these competing visions of urban habitation. He had the impossible task (for someone like him) of trying mightily to hold these two models apart but serve them both.

In addition, McCone embodies in a single figure the toxic symbiosis between the co-production of fronts of “war” and “home,” seemingly separated from each other, but in practice, intimately tied. On an intriguing side note that continues to have repercussions in our current security state, McCone worked early in his career as a deputy for Department of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, helping with the initial blueprint for what became the CIA itself. As if following up on ideas he perhaps incubated early on, he augmented the agency’s aerial surveillance capacities when he went on to direct it. According to his Washington Post obituary, McCone established the CIA’s “directorate of science and technology” (Smith, 1991). In other words, McCone was not merely any random boss for the agency; he seems to have had a personal role in the secretive modes of exploiting essentialist ideologies of separated war and home to target imagined threats under questionable extra-constitutional rationales. Although I will not have the space to dig into it more, the ongoing racialized technological tracking of “dangerous” bodies under exceptional (though widely applied) suspensions of rights seems to have one of its roots in McCone’s time at the CIA. This tangent, nevertheless, goes to show the extent to which maintaining the imaginative geography of divided war and home fronts becomes instrumental to governing both.

As Loyd explains, it takes this kind of ideology to construct the geography of the here and the there. Or as she poses so eloquently in the introduction (with regards to the McCone Commission, but also speaking to the larger issue at stake), “How can state violence not be regarded as a health problem, and how do dominant meanings and geographies of health help to obscure violence?” (13). McCone not only embodies this tension of framing a health problem separate from state violence in a symbolic sense; he himself produced this conflict throughout much of his lifelong labors.

To elaborate a bit further, McCone, mostly in partnership with Stephen Bechtel and other opportune business partners, became a multi-millionaire by arming the US for World War II. With interests in oil refineries, infrastructure, military bases, shipbuilding, and aircraft manufacturing, McCone catapulted from being merely a rich man to becoming a highly select beneficiary of American imperial power.

Yet it shouldn’t be lost on us that the industrialization of the West Coast and the South was built thanks in large part to the labor of African Americans escaping rural poverty and Jim Crow, while simultaneously barred from equal service in the military during World War II. Boomtowns such as Richmond, Long Beach, Hunter’s Point, and Watts grudgingly accommodated the segregated bodies of African Americans (Taylor, 1999; Jelly-Schapiro, 2010; Johnson, 1993; Nash, 1985; Lotchin, 2003). These were also the places left to deal with the immediate downturn in employment after the war ended. The (violently segregated) incorporation of urban places like Watts and Richmond into a wartime economy made McCone into a fixture in the highest US elites, not to mention benefiting from the labor disparities that were legacies of slavery and segregation. But McCone, and the entire public-private machine, left urban inner cities to fend for themselves after the war enterprises closed down. The return of McCone as some kind of savior-cum-disciplinarian after Watts burned was loaded with an insulting symbolism. In short, McCone came to dispassionately examine the desolate landscape he had helped create.

The symbolic landscape matters here quite a bit. The now defunct King-Drew hospital was the practical and monumental legacy of the McCone Commission. With his outsized fortune, John McCone left a foundation that has made donations at several universities. A building bears his name at Middlebury’s international relations graduate institute in Monterey (not far from the Navy’s elite strategy campus). As Trevor Paglen says, “The lines separating academia from state power can get exceptionally blurry” (Paglen, 2010: 7). But that’s precisely how militarization operates out in the open. The monumentality of King-Drew or the McCone name stamped on buildings, with myriad ties to forms of state violence, entombs the distressing connections between knowledge and warfare in plain sight.

At UC Berkeley, McCone’s name fits into a long legacy of educating for resource extraction and military expansionism (cf. Brechin, 2006), and Paglen has also detailed the intimate relations of these fields with his own opportunities for burrowing into collections of aerial photographs to discern shrouded militarization at vast desert test sites. Not coincidentally, for someone who owed so much of his power to a geopolitical diagramming of the planet, McCone’s family also underwrote the seismic renovation of the earth sciences building on Berkeley’s campus. And it is precisely inside this building where Berkeley’s geography department is housed on the fifth floor. This is, of course, where Loyd’s doctoral dissertation is also housed – “Freedom’s Body: Radical Health Activism in Los Angeles, 1963 to 1978” – and where the book Health Rights began (Loyd 2005). This rich correspondence between Loyd’s text and the McConenian mausoleum where it is originally housed has its own symbolic charge, a site that one could physically or imaginatively visit. The tension between the work of people like Jenna Loyd and the landscape allows us to peer into the veiled power of figures like McCone. McCone worked all his life to sustain a geopolitical diagramming of the earth. Over time, the affinities forged in resistance to such a diagram of power became somewhat forgotten: the surprising combination (especially in the wane of the Obama presidency) of health activism with peace and justice activism. With Loyd’s work, these affinities have become suddenly revitalized. 


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Fogelson RM (1967) White on black: a critique of the McCone Commission Report on the Los Angeles Riots. Political Science Quarterly 82(3): 337–367.
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