Sunday, October 6, 2013


It is JFK season, but even apart from that, I’ve been reassessing him and the era in the last few years, reading accounts of general history of the era, Eisenhower histories, the Stephen King book, and most importantly the 2007 David Talbot book “Brothers.”  My life-long friend Bob Levin has also been immersing himself, principally in the civil rights literature, I think – Taylor Branch, and a book we both read about the Freedom Riders, which was great.

So here is Bob’s current take on the Kennedy Administration:

Those I know who believe most strongly that a vast conspiracy lay behind the assassination of President Kennedy place great emphasis on his commencement address at American university in June of 1963.  They believe these remarks revealed him to be committed to achieving global peace through agreements with Nikita Khruschev and certainly prefigured his intent to end our involvement in Vietnam and, hence, made the CIA, the military, and others decide to murder him.  Never a great believer in conspiracy theories myself, and not a greater admirer of JFK, I decided to see what went on between the time of this speech and his assassination five months later.  For my admittedly non-exhaustive research I turned to the Stanley Karnow book, my only Vietnam reference on hand, and my conclusion is i don't think Kennedy knew what the fuck he was doing with Vietnam.

Shortly after the speech he sent 3000 troops to Thailand because of unrest in Laos.  In early September, he told Walter Cronkite withdrawing from Vietnam would be a mistake.  He tried to get the New York Times to pull out David Halberstam because his reports were hurting the war effort.  He went back and forth about whether to support the coup against Diem, worrying mainly if it would work, not if it was the moral thing to do, eventually leaving it to his ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to do as he felt best.  
The only support I found for the existence of an anti-war attitude in Kennedy was Larry O'Donnell's recollection of JFK's telling him he would pull out troops once he was re-elected, but couldn't do it before without being tarred as soft on Communism.  But O'Donnell was a Kennedy loyalist likely to paint him in the best light, which, in 1970, when he recounted this conversation, would have been to make him a peacenik.  And even if O'Donnell's memory and account were accurate, it still doesn't mean Kennedy would have acted in line with this sentiment.
So I see the Am U speech as just political talk.  I think Kennedy was a pol, playing things for maximum advantage, not out of principle.  (Certainly that's how he acted in the South on civil rights.)  Maybe that was enough to get people in the CIA pissed off enough to want to kill him but he was not the figure this other crowd is trying to make him out to be.

I believe Kennedy was essentially an unprincipled politician, telling audiences what he thought they wanted to hear, always seeking to manage events to his and his party's political advantage.  Certainly, that was how his administration conducted itself with respect to the civil rights movement then raging in the south.  And civil rights, remember, was more of an issue than Vietnam was in 1963.  Freedom Summer was about to launch, whereas hardly anyone knew where Vietnam was, and there was no anti-war movement to even speak of.

Then again, as my friend Richard Weber points out, it isn't necessary to burnish JFK's reputation in order to find motivation for the CIA, for instance, to take him out.  He had already pissed them off by firing Allen Dulles and not giving them carte blanche in Southeast Asia.

I myself have a different view:

I went around for years thinking that I liked Kennedy, his panache, the change from the 50's, but I knew the charges that he was essentially a cold warrior, not so progressive on many things.

Then I read the book by Talbot, who polishes everything to a high sheen, and my images of him reunited: he was indeed great, or at least was getting there!  He was fighting the militarists who predominated, but was severely limited in what he could do.  The Talbot book essentially says that he learned quickly, and was in ascent to the gods of right-thinking.  He takes Bobby's ascent in righteousness in the subsequent years as a surrogate for where JFK was going.

That is a speculative view, but an attractive one to reunite my psyche.  And it can't be disproved by his knowledge of political necessity; you can only do what you can do.  I think I'll stick with it.
Budd Shenkin

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