The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination has spawned a flood of material — books, documentaries, articles and memorabilia related to Kennedy’s presidency as well as to his untimely death.
They seem to fall into two categories — looping replays of the assassination and its immediate aftermath, including the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected killer; and retrospectives on JFK’s life and presidency that elevate him to a level of veneration bordering on martyrdom. Except that, lacking a motive for his assassination, we cannot decide for what cause he was martyred. Yet, it seems the decision has been made to transform him into an icon.
The definition of an icon given by Webster’s includes the following — “a saint, revered as a sacred object in the Eastern Church.” A saint is beyond reproach. We can petition a saint, but we cannot question him or her.
Kennedy is typically described as handsome, charming, charismatic, erudite, witty and stylish. He was all that and more, and with his attractive wife — who was a patron of the arts, lover of beautiful things — they brought a welcome panache to the White House, a dramatic change from its recent occupants, Harry and Bess Truman and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Now it seemed America had its own royal couple to match the majesty of European royal houses, ironic since Americans had fostered the myth of equality and vowed to not reproduce the aristocracies of their European forebears.
One adjective infrequently used to define JFK is enigmatic. He was certainly an enigma, which Webster’s says is “something hard to define or understand fully.” Kennedy was a complicated person engaged with internal as well as external battles, with his own frailties and weaknesses, physical and moral; as well as with an external enemy — international communism. These battles would cause him to act in ways that were not always in his or the nation’s best interests.
Throughout his life, Kennedy battled all manner of ailments, some acute, some chronic. Thus, despite the image of vibrancy and vigor projected by Camelot, as Kennedy’s White House was later labeled, he kept up his frenetic pace of activity by virtue of a veritable pharmacopoeia of therapeutic and performance-enhancing drugs. Had we known then what we know now, we would have been much more terrified during the Cuban missile crisis.
While the Cuban invasion plan reportedly was hatched during Eisenhower’s administration, one can imagine that it held some fascination for Kennedy and appealed to his sense of adventure and machismo — à la Teddy Roosevelt. But the plan was not well vetted before it was implemented with Kennedy’s consent. And it blew up in Kennedy’s face. From then on, two sets of brothers faced off, mano a mano — John and Robert on the one hand, Fidel and Raul, on the other.
John and Robert were determined to have revenge and they set out to have Fidel killed. This would involve many exploits, including exploding cigars and plots to poison Fidel’s food. It also would involve the use of members of organized crime. The plots did not succeed. For their part, Che Guevara was determined to export the example of the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America, a quixotic notion, but it plunged much of Latin America into the middle of the Cold War with devastating consequences that would play out throughout the rest of the century.
Kennedy deserves kudos for pulling back from the brink of Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis. But he was helped out by Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to not challenge the naval blockade that Kennedy had imposed and by committing to not reveal the terms of the agreement between himself and Kennedy in which Kennedy committed to remove U.S Jupiter missiles in Turkey directed at the Soviet Union.
Regarding the civil rights revolution, it is said that Kennedy was slow to embrace the movement for equal rights. The sad truth is that he viewed the demonstrations as unwelcome and, for some time, saw Martin Luther King as an adversary. The brothers’ opposition was not founded in the visceral posture of George Wallace and Southern segregationists but in a fear that continued demonstrations would alienate the Southern Democrats whose support they were cultivating for their re-election in 1964.
Additionally, the demonstrations resonated badly in the new nations emerging from colonialism and for whom the United States was competing with the Communist bloc. In fact, they saw the civil rights movement through the prism of international communism, had wiretaps installed on King’s telephones and had his hotel rooms bugged. (Kennedy had been elected by virtue of the votes of African-Americans.) The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a turning point. Now it seemed that Camelot was left with little choice but to embrace the movement’s pursuit of equal rights.
The Peace Corps was the signature program of JFK’s first term. Had Kennedy lived to a second term, he might have negotiated a diminution of the Cold War and its attendant arms race, pulled back from his military thrust in Vietnam, and pushed hard for a civil rights bill, medical care for the aged, food aid for the hungry, early childhood education for poor children and a war on poverty. He might have championed environmental conservation and consumer protection.
But, as it turned out, it was left to his successor to accomplish, with the exception of a winding down of the Cold War and our war in Vietnam, all these and more, some of it in the name of the dead president.
We will never know what Kennedy’s presidency could or would have become!
— Desmond Jolly is an emeritus agricultural economist at UC Davis and Instructor for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.