Archive for the ‘John F. Kennedy’ Category

The Assassination of Kennedy Fifty Years Later: The Cuban Question Mark 1
An Essay by Charles Cogan, Affiliate, Harvard Kennedy School

November 22, 2013

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was intimately linked, if only in a subliminal fashion, to American actions against Cuba at the beginning of the 1960’s, which in turn formed part of an aggressive and interventionist policy that marked the early phase of
the Cold War.

The assassination itself was carried out by a sole killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, out of his admiration for Fidel Castro and his animosity toward the American Government and its President.

The question that remains open after fifty years gone by is whether Castro, who was perfectly aware of the Kennedy brothers’ plots against him – thanks to a Cuban double agent who had proposed to the CIA that he assassinate Castro – had ordered his intelligence services to collaborate with Oswald in his action. Until now, nothing solid has emerged to support this thesis.

In December 2006, The Atlantic, the prestigious magazine founded in Boston in 1857, published a list of the 100 most influential Americans in the history of the country. The list included, besides presidents, also writers and others, including…baseball players. But the list did not contain the name of John F. Kennedy. This was certainly not due to inadvertence. It was a slap, the motive behind which was unclear…unless it was a relic of the religious wars – Kennedy having been the first Catholic president of the United States.

I was astounded when I heard about the article in The Atlantic. Because, in spite of the meager legislative accomplishments of John Kennedy’s Administration and the brevity of his tenure – the ‘thousand days’ – cut short by the horrible attack at Dallas on November 22, 1963, it was he, and virtually he alone, who extricated the United States from one of the worst dangers in history –the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

At the end of the afternoon of October 27, 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara paused on the steps of the Pentagon to look at the sunset, thinking at that moment that he might never see a sunset again2 – because on that day the Missile Cisis had reached its paroxysm: earlier in the day a U-2 observation aircraft had been shot down and its pilot killed. The attack had been carried out by Russian troops on orders of Fidel Castro.

I cite this anecdote of Robert McNamara to show that the margin between a political solution to the crisis and a nuclear holocaust was extremely thin throughout the thirteen days of the crisis – during which time the President warded off the insistent appeals by most of his senior military officers for an immediate attack on Cuba. In particular, Curtis LeMay, the head of the Air Force and the most hawkish of these officers, was disrespectful toward the ‘young’ President in person and railed against him during the latter’s occasional absences from the Situation Room.

The famous thirteen days comprised the period between the discovery of the missiles by the American U-2 airplane on October 15, 1962 and the move toward a political solution when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced on October 27 that he was removing the missiles from the island since Kennedy had agreed not to invade Cuba. During these thirteen days, the Soviet missiles had not become operational, giving President Kennedy a window of sufficient time to ponder a prudential solution to the crisis while avoiding the risk of a nuclear war with the USSR.

Another, and not negligible accomplishment of the Kennedy brothers at the dénouement of the crisis was their success in convincing the Soviets not to mention publicly that the solution that was found was more of a give and take than a humiliating retreat by the USSR: it was the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey against the departure of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy succeeded in convincing the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Anatoli Dobrynin, that, because of the U.S. legislative elections that were coming up in the following month, the Turkish side of the agreement had to remain secret – otherwise President Kennedy would look weak before American voters. The Soviets stuck to their word, respecting the agreement made by the two interlocutors. But because of this fact, and from the point of view of public relations, the Soviet Union came off as the loser in the missile crisis.

The danger had been so great during the missile crisis that President Kennedy made an effort to ensure that such a situation should never arise again. A hot line was established between the White House and the Kremlin. In addition, the first agreement on nuclear disarmament – the Limited Test Ban Treaty – was signed in the summer of 1963.

A year after the missile crisis, on Friday, 22 November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated at Dallas. The back story to this act still remains mysterious, from the fact that the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself shot dead before then end of the weekend. Fifty years later, the shadow over this incident persists. One can certainly situate the motivation of the assassin, Oswald. He was a great admirer of Fidel Castro. He had participated earlier that autumn in a rally in New Orleans in support of the Cuban regime. Subsequently, he sought to get a visa for Cuba at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. It was granted but only after the fateful weekend of 22-24 November.

What remains unknown is the question of contacts Oswald might have had with agents of the powerful Cuban intelligence service, the Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI), in Mexico City or elsewhere. And in the final analysis, the question remains open as to whether Fidel Castro himself might have been implicated in the assassination of the young American President. With fifty years having gone by, nothing concrete has emerged as to the involvement of the Cuban government or Cuban intelligence in the assassination; which leads to the conclusion — provisionally – that Oswald acted on his own, out of his admiration for Castro. Perhaps after the death of Castro more will be learned about the role of the Cubans.

Nevertheless Castro, because of his reckless temperament, and because of the information he possessed concerning the plots of the Kennedy brothers against his person, would make a perfectly credible sponsor of an operation to assassinate the President.

At the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro seemed to want to bring on a nuclear holocaust which, though it would destroy the island of Cuba, would in his mind open the way to a communization of the world. The French newspaper Le Monde published on 23 November 1990 a series of letters exchanged between Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, in which the Cuban leader asked Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear war in the event that American forces attacked Cuba. (Subsequently the letters were published elsewhere, notably in The Armageddon Letters.3)

In sum, Fidel Castro was prepared to sacrifice his country for the benefit of a future world of communism. In a message to Khrushchev on 26 October 1962, Castro wrote, inter alia, the following:

If…the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that this aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.4

The message was clear, although implicit: if the Americans invaded Cuba, the Soviet Union should launch a nuclear attack against the United States.
In a message of 27 October, Khrushchev informed Castro that a solution was in sight, as President Kennedy had promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev advised Castro not to be carried away by his emotions and not to respond to provocations, such as the attack he ordered against an American U-2 airplane on 27 October, which claimed the life of the pilot. “Yesterday you shot down one of these [planes] while earlier you didn’t shoot them down when they overflew your territory. The aggressors will take advantage of such a step for their own purposes.”5 (At this point, Khrushchev may have thought that Castro had gotten completely out of hand and that he had better, as a result, find some sort of solution with President Kennedy. It was on the same date as the shootdown, 27 October, that Khrushchev accepted the public compromise proposed by his American counterpart – that is, the withdrawal of the missiles in return for a commitment by the United States not to invade Cuba).
Castro replied the next day, 28 October. The following is an extract:

Earlier isolated violations were committed without a determined military purpose or without a real danger stemming from those flights. This time, that wasn’t the case. There was the danger of a surprise attack on certain military installations. We decided not to sit back and wait for a surprise attack…6
In a following message of 30 October Khrushchev made it clear he was perfectly aware of the implications of Castro’s reckless proposal:
In your [message]…you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear attack on the territory of the enemy. Obviously you are aware of what could follow. Rather than a single strike, it would have been the beginning of a thermonuclear war.7

Castro replied on 31 October to Khrushchev’s letter of the 30th. Here is an extract:

We knew, and one must not think otherwise, that we would be annihilated, as you indicated in your letter, if there was a nuclear war. But that didn’t lead us to ask you to withdraw the missiles. That did not lead us to yield.8

James Blight and janet9 Lang in The New York Times on October 26, 2012 recounted Khrushchev’s unvarnished reaction to Castro’s letter of October 26:
According to his son and biographer, Sergei Khrushchev, the Soviet premier received that letter in the midst of a tense leadership meeting and shouted, ‘This is insane! Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him’! Khrushchev hadn’t understood that Mr.

Castro believed that Cuba was doomed, that war was inevitable, and that the Soviets should transform Cuba from a mere victim into a martyr.
Shortly after this exchange of letters, Khrushchev sent the seasoned diplomat, Anastas Mikoyan, to Havana to continue the discussions with the Cuban leaders. The following is an extract of an exchange between Mikoyan and Che Guevara on November 5, 1962:

Guevara: Even in the context of all our respect for the Soviet Union, we believe that the decisions made by the Soviet Union were a mistake. ..Mikoyan: But we thought that you would be satisfied by our act. We did everything so that Cuba would not be destroyed. We see your readiness to die beautifully but we believe that it isn’t worth dying beautifully.10

Fidel Castro, at a later time, had a different story to tell. In a report of an interview with Castro at Havana, published in The Atlantic on October 16, 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg recalled that he had had the following exchange with Castro a couple of years earlier:

Does what you recommended [that the Soviets launch a nuclear attack against the U.S.] still seem logical now? Castro answered, ‘After what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know, it wasn’t worth it all’.

As to the knowledge Castro had of American intentions against Cuba and against Castro himself, the Cuban leader was amply informed. After he had seized power, Castro became aware of the hostility of the United States towards his regime.

Even before he became President, John Kennedy had been alerted by his advisers of the danger that the new revolutionary regime in Cuba represented, and the possibility that Fidel Castro might invite the Soviets to establish forces on the island. A Soviet base 150 kilometers from American territory could not be permitted in the midst of the Cold War.

There followed the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, an operation inherited from the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, and during which Kennedy refused coverage of the landing beach by the U.S. Air Force, thereby clinching the failure of the operation.

The humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco only doubled the determination of the Kennedy brothers to remove Castro. In October 1961, a covert operation, codenamed Mongoose, was launched against the Cuban regime, with at its head Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney- General. A so-called Augmented Special Group was created in the White House and set about planning lethal attacks on Castro himself and conducting sabotage operations on the island. Virtually all of these activities either failed or did not see the light of day.

But the essential point here is that Castro was well aware of the lethal intentions of the Kennedy brothers, and this could have incited him to retaliate against the American President, using his own Cuban intelligence service, the DGI. In fact, the DGI did use a “dangle” to learn about American intentions towards Castro and the Cuban Government.11

In 1961, a DGI agent, Rolando Cubela, let it be known through an intermediary that he was against Castro and was seeking a contact with the Americans.12 Later, in July 1962, Cubela met with a CIA officer during the World Youth Festival at Helsinki. The contact was dropped shortly afterwards, when Cubela refused to take a polygraph test.

In 1963, when the tempo of plots against Castro intensified, and as a result of a decision at CIA, a Spanish-speaking American operations officer, Nestor Sanchez, met with Cubela at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Thirty years later the fact that from the outset Cubela had been a double agent was confirmed by a Cuban agent of the CIA.13 Thus it was that very early on Castro became aware that the Kennedy brothers were trying to have him killed.

The venue suggested for meetings between Sanchez and Cubela was Paris. Presumably this was at Cuban instigation, as Cuba had an embassy there and thus had agents available for counter-surveillance. By an irony of fate, a meeting was scheduled for 22 November 1963. By that point the CIA was preparing to have delivered to Cubela in Cuba a rifle with telescopic sights – ironically the same type of weapon that Oswald used against Kennedy. The assassination of the American President the same day cut off further attempts to assassinate Castro, although the CIA contact with Cubela was maintained until December 1964.

In sum, because of Castro’s temperament – his apocalyptic wish for the nuclear obliteration of Cuba followed by the communization of the world, plus the fact of the information from Cubela of the Kennedy brothers’ plans to assassinate him, Castro may well have decided to strike at Kennedy before he himself was attacked. It is worth noting in this regard that on September 7, 1963 at Havana, Castro gave an interview to an American journalist, Daniel Harker, in which he warned the Americans not to try to assassinate Cuban leaders, as otherwise “they themselves will not be safe.”14

The Castro regime, whether or not it was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had every pretext to do so. In this regard, it is well to keep in mind the role of the CIA in the early

days of the Cold War and its interventions overseas, which today can appear excessive. Moreover, the ease with which the CIA overthrew the regime of Jacobo Guzman in Guatemala and that of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran created an atmosphere of invincibility around the CIA and gave rise to the idea that covert action was an effective tool of its own, between war and diplomacy. This led to the botched operation of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. But this failure only redoubled the efforts of the Kennedy brothers to do away with Castro.

During the entire period of the Cold War the CIA seems to have underestimated the capabilities of Cuban Intelligence. In this regard, it is interesting to recall that, during the 1980’s, several dozen Cubans, supposedly agents of the CIA, had been in reality double agents run by the Cuban DGI.15 They had even been trained by the DGI in how to overcome the polygraph. One could speculate that, because of the high degree of professionalism of the DGI, that organization has been able to conceal all these years an involvement with Oswald. The mystery remains.

1 A slightly different version of this essay appeared in French on October 9, 2013 in Questions internationales (No. 64, November-December 2013, 110-114), a publication of “La Docmentation française.”

2 Sheldon Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2005), p. 186.

3 James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, The Armageddon Letters, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2012.

4 BlightandLang,117.

5 Blight and Lang, 122.

6 Blight and Lang, 151-52.

7 Blight and Lang, 156.

8. Blight and Lang,162.

9 This lack of capitalization of Janet Lang’s first name accords with her preference.

Dr. Charles G. Cogan is an Affiliate vice Associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. A graduate of Harvard, then a journalist, and then a military officer, he spent thirty-seven years in the Central Intelligence Agency, twenty-three of them on assignments overseas. From August 1979-August 1984 he was chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations. From September 1984-September 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. After leaving the CIA, he earned a doctorate in public administration at Harvard, in June 1992. He lectures and writes in English and French.

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New York Times  November 21, 2013

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he remains an object of almost universal admiration. And yet, particularly this year, his legacy has aroused the ire of debunkers who complain that Kennedy is unworthy of all this adulation.

“John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century,” wrote the journalist Thomas E. Ricks. “He spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

He was, they say, all image and no substance, a shallow playboy whose foreign policy mistakes and paltry legislative record undermine any claim to greatness. His assassination, personal attributes of good looks and charm, joined to Jacqueline Kennedy’s promotion of a Camelot myth, have gone far to explain his popularity.

Such criticism not only gives short shrift to Kennedy’s real achievements as a domestic and foreign policy leader, but it also fails to appreciate the presidency’s central role: to inspire and encourage the country to move forward, a role that Kennedy performed better than any president in modern memory.

The litany of complaints against Kennedy is a long one. Critics scoff at his image as a devoted family man: They complain that he was, as Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic, “a compulsive, even pathological adulterer,” whose reckless self-indulgence threatened to destroy his presidency.

Critics also point to his hidden health problems: Would voters have elected him over Richard M. Nixon if they had full knowledge of his Addison’s disease or other potentially disabling ailments? And what does it say about his character that he concealed his condition?

As for his presidency, critics find it difficult to understand why anyone would consider him more than an average chief executive, if even that.

They are especially critical of his civil rights record. His delay in signing an executive order ending segregation in public housing, which he had promised during the 1960 campaign; his appointment of segregationist federal judges; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s complaint that Kennedy lacked the “moral passion” to fight for equal treatment of blacks — all of this has convinced some historians that Kennedy’s later decision to ask for a civil rights law was pure political expediency.

Kennedy’s critics also find fault with his foreign policies, especially on Cuba and Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs failure and Operation Mongoose, the plan to assassinate or at least depose Fidel Castro, supposedly opened the way to the missile crisis and demonstrated his inexperience and the poor judgment of an overzealous cold warrior.

And Kennedy’s decision to increase the number of military advisers in Vietnam, combined with his alleged support for the coup that killed South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, are said to be preludes to Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous war.

All of this has merit. But Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency is more impressive for its gains than its shortcomings.

Most notably, he saved the world from a nuclear war with his astute diplomacy during the October 1962 confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba. As he privately said at the time, the military leadership wanted to bomb and invade, but no one alive then would survive to tell them they were wrong.

And while critics focus on the minutiae of those 13 days, Kennedy’s real success was what came after.

Eager to avoid a replay of Soviet-American tensions over Cuba, he followed the crisis with private expressions of interest in a rapprochement with Mr. Castro. More important, he reached an agreement with the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev for a nuclear test ban treaty that eliminated radiation fallout in the atmosphere.

As for Vietnam, what matters is that Kennedy successfully resisted pressure to send anything more than military advisers, a stance that was a likely prelude to complete withdrawal from the conflict. There is solid evidence of his eagerness to end America’s military role in that country’s civil war.

And while Kennedy did not achieve as much in terms of legislation as he wanted, his record has to be seen in context.

His legislative agenda was held hostage to a conservative Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers who saw his reforms as a threat to racial segregation. In response, he established a formal system for communicating with every allied member in Congress and kept a systematic accounting of various bills and their weekly progress. His decision to put a civil rights bill before Congress in June 1963 was a shining moment of political courage; it jeopardized his hold on Southern voters who had given him a slim margin of victory in 1960.

Moreover, had he lived to run against Barry M. Goldwater in 1964, Kennedy would have undoubtedly won a large victory and been in a position to pass his major bills. It would have won him acclaim as an impressive reformer in a league with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. His health problems and womanizing cannot be ignored, but they were neither unique to him nor proved to be a problem in office.

But Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.

Kennedy saw the presidency as the vital center of government, and a president’s primary goal as galvanizing commitments to constructive change. He aimed to move the country and the world toward a more peaceful future, not just through legislation but through inspiration.

Kennedy’s presidential ambitions rested on his understanding of what Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. had done. Like them, he relied on the spoken word, but he had the advantage of television in reaching millions of people around the globe. And like those predecessors, he saw the need for actions that gave meaning to his rhetoric.

The requests in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and his “peace speech” in June 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union were aimed at promoting national unity and international accord.

Compared with other recent presidents whose stumbles and failures have assaulted the national self-esteem, memories of Kennedy continue to give the country faith that its better days are ahead. That’s been reason enough to discount his limitations and remain enamored of his presidential performance.

Robert Dallek is a professor emeritus in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.”

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Why Lee Harvey Oswald Pulled the Trigger

by Steven M. Gillon
HNN   November 20, 2013

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Image via Wiki Commons.

It has been fifty years since that tragic day in Dallas, but Americans remain fascinated with both the details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its meaning. This year will see the publication of nearly a dozen new books, and a flood of reprints, as the assassination cottage industry shifts into high gear. A number of television networks have produced documentary specials devoted to the assassination.

The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is: Is there really anything new to learn? While writing my new book, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live, I went back to the standard narrative of that day — the Warren Commission. How well does it hold up in light of five decades of attacks?

In September 1964, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, popularly known as the Warren Commission, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, had fired three bullets from the sixth floor of the school book depository building.

The Warren Commission initially received a warm reception. Before the release of the report, a Gallup poll found that only 29 percent of Americans thought Oswald acted alone, while 52 percent believed in some kind of conspiracy. A few months after the release of the report, 87 percent of respondents believed Oswald shot the president.

Over the next few years however, critics turned public opinion against the report. In 1966, Mark Lane published his best-seller Rush to Judgment. Later that year, a New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, launched a highly publicized, but deeply flawed, investigation of his own which purported to reveal a vast conspiracy. At the same time Life Magazine published color reproductions of the Zapruder film under the cover: “Did Oswald Act Alone? A Matter of Reasonable Doubt.” The editors questioned the Commission’s conclusions and called for a new investigation.

Most of these early skeptics used the Warren Commission’s own evidence against it. They focused on contradictions among some of the witnesses about the number of shots and from where they were fired. Some witnesses claim they heard gunfire from the grassy knoll, an elevated area to the front, right of the presidential limousine. A favorite topic was the so-called “magic bullet.” According to the Warren Commission, Oswald fired three shots in less than eight seconds: the first shot missed, the second shot struck Kennedy in the back, exited through his throat, and then hit Governor Connally, breaking a rib, shattering his wrist, and ending up in his thigh. Critics claimed the bullet, which remained largely intact, could not have been responsible for all of the damage. Also, if Connally and Kennedy were hit by different bullets in a fraction of a second, then it meant there had to be another shooter.

The most serious threat to the Commission’s credibility, however, came not from the army of investigative reporters and self-styled assassination experts, but from new government investigations.

In 1975 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Idaho’s Frank Church, revealed that American intelligence agencies had systematically hidden important evidence from the Warren Commission. Both the FBI and the CIA had lied by omission to the Warren Commission. One prominent senator told a television audience that “the [Warren] report… has collapsed like a house of cards.”

These revelations led to the creation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). In December 1978, after two years of work, the committee was prepared to issue a report that supported all the major conclusions of the Warren Commission. It found no evidence of a conspiracy. No second shooter. But in the final weeks the committee changed its opinion and concluded that although Oswald was the assassin, there was a conspiracy involving a second gunman.

The committee relied on the highly questionable, and now  discredited, acoustical analysis of a police dictabelt recording from Dallas police headquarters. It contained sounds from a police motorcycle in Dealey Plaza whose radio transmitting switch was stuck in the “on” position. Two acoustics experts said there was a 95 percent certainty that the recording revealed that four shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade. As a result the House Committee came to the bizarre conclusion that a second shooter fired at the president but missed.

Coming in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the HSCA report added to public cynicism about the Warren Commission conclusions. At just the time that Americans were learning that the government lied to them about Vietnam and Watergate, they now discovered it had lied about aspects of the assassination of President Kennedy. If the CIA and the FBI had lied to the Commission, the reasoning went, then they clearly had something to hide.

There were now two conspiracies: The conspiracy to assassinate the President and, potentially, an even larger and more insidious plot among powerful figures in government and the media to cover it up.

In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone tapped into these doubts, and added his own paranoid twist, to create the wildly popular movie JFK. The film portrayed an elaborate web of conspiracy involving Vice President Johnson, the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the KGB, pro-Castro and anti-Castro forces, defense contractors, and assorted other officials and agencies. The movie makes it seem that First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the only person in Dealey Plaza that day who was not planning to murder the president.

The movie ended with a plea for audience members to ask Congress to open up all Kennedy assassination records. The plea worked. In 1992, Congress passed a sweeping law that placed all remaining government documents pertaining to the assassination in a special category and loosened the normal classification guidelines. The legislation led to the most ambitious declassification effort in American history — more than five million documents in total.

What we have learned from the new government investigations and from the flood of declassified documents is that Warren Commission got it mostly right. There have been no shocking revelations to challenge the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Moreover, there has emerged no convincing alternative explanation of what took place in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Yet the new information does highlighted one major flaw with the Warren Commission: its failure to present a convincing explanation for why Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. Much of the final commission report represented an indictment of Oswald. It failed to ascribe a single motive, but it made a strong case that Oswald was little more than a disaffected sociopath who was in desperate need of attention. It spent a great deal of effort showing how the events in his childhood – growing up without a father, feeling isolated, moving often, and dealing with an overbearing mother – turned him into an angry, embittered sociopath.

Many of the new documents and information, while fragmentary and often contradictory, reveal that Oswald was driven as much by ideology as he was by personal demons. None of the information reveals a conspiracy, or proves the involvement of any outside group, but it does reinforce a possible political motive to the assassination, highlighting that Oswald was driven by a desire to prove his fidelity to the Cuban Revolution, gain Castro’s respect, and possibly travel to Cuba as a conquering hero. In his fantasy world, Oswald probably assumed that he would be welcomed in Cuba as the man who killed the American devil, not appreciating that neither Castro nor the Soviets would wish to incur the wrath of the United States by harboring JFK’s assassin.

Why did the Warren Commission fail to highlight Oswald’s political motives? Cold War fears likely chilled the Commission’s desire to place too much emphasis on Oswald’s pro-Castro activities. The Commission knew a great deal about Oswald’s politics: his early embrace of Marxism, his defection to the Soviet Union, his involvement in pro-Castro groups in New Orleans, and his attempted assassination of right-wing retired general Edwin Walker a few months before he killed JFK. It pointed out that while he was being interrogated Oswald asked to be represented by a lawyer, John Apt, who represented many Communist party figures. It mentioned that Oswald had traveled to Mexico City where he shuttled back and forth between the Soviet embassy and the Cuban consulate in search of a visa. Yet it refused to connect the dots.

More importantly, the Commission lacked the proper context for evaluating Oswald’s motives because it was denied relevant intelligence information. Recently declassified document reveal that American intelligence agencies had kept close tabs on Oswald in the months before the shot JFK. The CIA took pictures of Oswald outside the Soviet embassy and even recorded his phone calls. But none of this evidence was turned over to the Commission, and all of it was later destroyed. The Commission, for example, never saw a memo prepared by J. Edgar Hoover that reported that Oswald had threaten to kill JFK during his trip to Mexico City just three weeks before the assassination.

In the most important omission, the CIA refused to provide the Commission with any of the information related to its activities in Cuba, including proposed assassination plots against Castro. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who oversaw the administration’s anti-Castro campaign, deliberately misled the Commission, denying that he was aware of any relevant information.

The final Commission report states, without any supporting evidence, that Oswald became disillusioned with Castro and Cuba after he was denied a visa to enter that country in late September. There is tantalizing evidence that just the opposite is true: As the Hoover memo suggests, it is more likely that Oswald killed Kennedy in order to convince Cuban authorities to accept his petition for a visa.

If the Commission had known about the administration’s covert campaign against Castro it would have seen Oswald’s pro-Castro actions in a new light, and could have investigated further some of his actions and associations.

The new more complicated portrait of Oswald does not change the fact that he pulled the trigger, but it does muddy the waters about why. Since he was killed before he confessed or was placed on trial we will never know for sure. Unfortunately, the Warren Commission’s incomplete portrait of Oswald and his motives has fed the conspiracy frenzy and served to undermine public faith in its lone-gunman theory.

Steven M. Gillon is the Scholar-in-Residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.

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Otros punto de vista sobre JFK

Joseph Nye

El país, 20 de noviembre de 2013

El 22 de noviembre se cumplirán 50 años del asesinato del presidente John F. Kennedy. Fue uno de esos acontecimientos tan estremecedores, que las personas que lo vivieron se acuerdan dónde estaban cuando supieron la noticia. Yo estaba bajando del tren en Nairobi cuando vi el dramático encabezado. Kennedy tenía tan solo 46 años cuando Lee Harvey Oswald lo asesinó en Dallas. Oswald era un ex marino descontento que había desertado a la Unión Soviética. Aunque su vida estuvo llena de enfermedades, Kennedy proyectaba una imagen de juventud y vigor, que hicieron más dramática y patética su muerte.

El martirio de Kennedy hizo que muchos estadounidenses lo elevaran al nivel de grandes presidentes, como George Washington y Abraham Lincoln, pero los historiadores son más reservados en sus evaluaciones. Sus críticos hacen referencia a su conducta sexual a veces imprudente, a su escaso récord legislativo y a su incapacidad para ser congruente con sus palabras. Si bien Kennedy hablaba de derechos civiles, reducciones de los impuestos y de la pobreza; fue su sucesor, Lyndon Johnson, el que utilizó la condición de mártir de Kennedy –aunado a sus muy superiores habilidades políticas– para pasar leyes históricas sobre estos temas.

En una encuesta de 2009 de especialistas sobre 65 presidentes estadounidenses JKF es considerado el sexto más importante, mientras que en una encuesta reciente realizada por expertos británicos en política estadounidense, Kennedy obtiene el lugar quince. Estas clasificaciones son sobresalientes para un presidente que estuvo en el cargo menos de tres años. Sin embargo, ¿qué logró verdaderamente Kennedy y cuán diferente habría sido la historia si hubiera sobrevivido?

En mi libro, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, clasifico los presidentes en dos categorías: aquellos que fueron transformadores en la definición de sus objetivos, que actuaron con gran visión en cuanto a importantes cambios; y los líderes operativos, que se centran sobre todo en aspectos “prácticos”, para garantizar que todo marchaba sobre ruedas (y correctamente). Como era un activista y con grandes dones de comunicación con un estilo inspirador, Kennedy parecía ser un presidente transformador. Su campaña en 1960 se desarrolló bajo la promesa de “hacer que el país avance de nuevo”.

En su discurso de toma de posesión, Kennedy llamó a hacer esfuerzos (“No hay que preguntarse qué puede hacer el país por mí, sino que puedo hacer yo por mi país”). Creó programas como el Cuerpo de Paz y la Alianza para el Progreso para América Latina; además, preparó a su país para enviar al hombre a la luna a finales de los años sesenta. Sin embargo, a pesar de su activismo y retórica, Kennedy tenía una personalidad más precavida que ideológica. Como señaló el historiador de presidentes, Fred Greenstein, “Kennedy tenía muy poca perspectiva global.”

En lugar de criticar a Kennedy por no cumplir lo que dijo, deberíamos agradecerle que en situaciones difíciles actuaba con prudencia y sentido práctico y no de forma ideológica y transformadora. Su logro más importante durante su breve mandato fue el manejo de la crisis de los misiles de Cuba en 1962, y apaciguamiento de lo que fue probablemente el episodio más peligroso desde el comienzo de la era nuclear.

Sin duda se puede culpar a Kennedy por el desastre de la invasión a Bahía de Cochinos en Cuba y la subsiguiente Operación Mangosta, el esfuerzo encubierto de la CIA contra el régimen de Castro, que hizo pensar a la Unión Soviética de que su aliado estaba bajo amenaza. Sin embargo, Kennedy aprendió de su derrota en Bahía de Cochinos y creó un procedimiento detallado para controlar la crisis que vino después de que la Unión Soviética emplazara misiles nucleares en Cuba.

Muchos de los asesores de Kennedy, así como líderes militares de los Estados Unidos, querían una invasión y un ataque aéreo, que ahora sabemos podrían haber hecho que los comandantes soviéticos en el terreno usaran sus armas nucleares tácticas. En cambio, Kennedy ganó tiempo y mantuvo abiertas sus opciones mientras negociaba una solución para la crisis con el líder soviético, Nikita Khrushchev. A juzgar por los duros comentarios del vicepresidente de la época, Lyndon Johnson, el resultado habría sido mucho peor si Kennedy no hubiera sido el presidente.

Además, Kennedy también aprendió de la crisis cubana de misiles: el 10 de junio de 1963 dio un discurso destinado a apaciguar las tensiones de la Guerra Fría. Señaló, “hablo de paz, por lo tanto, como el fin racional necesario del ser humano racional”. Si bien una visión presidencial de paz no era nueva, Kennedy le dio seguimiento mediante la negociación del primer acuerdo de control de armas nucleares, el Tratado de prohibición parcial de los ensayos nucleares.

La gran pregunta sin respuesta sobre la presidencia de Kennedy y cómo su asesinato afectó la política exterior estadounidense, es ¿qué habría hecho él en cuanto a la guerra en Vietnam? Cuando Kennedy llegó a la presidencia los Estados Unidos había algunos cientos de asesores en Vietnam del sur; pero ese número aumentó a 16.000. Johnson finalmente incrementó las tropas estadounidenses a más de 500.000.

Muchos partidarios de Kennedy sostienen que él nunca habría cometido ese error. Aunque respaldó un golpe para sustituir al presidente de Vietnam del sur, Ngo Dinh Diem, y dejó a Johnson una situación deteriorada y un grupo de asesores que recomendaban no retirarse. Algunos seguidores fervientes de Kennedy –por ejemplo, el historiador Arthur Schlesinger, y el asesor de discursos de Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen– han señalado que Kennedy planeaba retirarse de Vietnam después de ganar la reelección en 1964, y sostenían que había comentado su plan al senador, Mike Mansfield. No obstante, los escépticos mencionan que Kennedy siempre habló públicamente de la necesidad de permanecer en Vietnam. La pregunta sigue abierta.

En mi opinión, Kennedy fue un buen presidente pero no extraordinario. Lo que lo distinguía no era solo su habilidad para inspirar a otros, sino su cautela cuando se trataba de tomar decisiones complejas de política exterior. Tuvimos la suerte de que tuviera más sentido práctico que transformador en lo que se refiere a política exterior. Para nuestra mala suerte lo perdimos tras solo mil días.

Joseph S. Nye es profesor de la Universidad de Harvard y autor de Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.

Traducción de Kena Nequiz

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JFK Was an Unapologetic Liberal

His underrated career as ideological warrior

by David Greenberg

New Republic  | November 11, 2013

In the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hype—the movies and books and magazine covers, the roundups and reminiscences and retrospectives—is in overdrive. How can America resist another JFK love-in? The popular adoration of Kennedy, five decades on, puzzles pundits and historians, who note, correctly, that he neither led the nation through war nor racked up a legislative record on par with that of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson.

Some explanations for the discrepancy are obvious: His youth and good looks. His vigor, grace, and cool. The facility with which he projected this image through television, of which he was the first presidential master. And the assassination itself, which by taking Kennedy in his prime allowed Americans to spin fantasies of greatness unrealized.

Yet neither the Camelot mystique nor Kennedy’s premature death can fully explain his continuing appeal. There was no cult of Warren Harding in 1973, no William McKinley media blitz in 1951. I would submit that Kennedy’s hold on us stems also from the way he used the presidency, his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems—in short, from his liberalism.

To make that case requires first correcting some misperceptions. Wasn’t JFK a cold warrior who called on Americans to gird for a “long twilight struggle”? Didn’t he drag his heels on civil rights? Didn’t he give us tax cuts a generation before Ronald Reagan? While there’s some truth to those assertions, layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to make the term liberal anathema, Kennedy embraced it. A liberal, he said in one speech, “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and under that definition, he said, “I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.’”

In 1960, the United States was gripped by a quest for “national purpose,” a yearning to find a meaningful goal for America’s energies. This desire had several sources. The cold war was enervating. Material comfort gave rise to an existential uncertainty about what our riches were supposed to produce, a malaise captured in books such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and David Riesman’s Abundance for What? Kennedy’s pledge to “get America moving again” should be understood as a part of this collective soul-searching. After the hands-off economic management of President Eisenhower’s free-marketeers, Kennedy promised an aggressive effort to spur growth and create jobs. After Eisenhower’s neglect of mounting urban problems, Kennedy promised a federal commitment to education and housing. After Sputnik and the U-2 affair, Kennedy promised a vigorous effort to win hearts and minds around the world.

As an activist, Kennedy called on Americans to trust government to address the nation’s problems; as a pragmatist, he bade them to believe that dedicated public servants could again muster, as they had during the New Deal, the requisite know-how. In word and in deed, JFK put the weight of his presidency behind a liberal program. He backed a demand-side—not supply-side—tax cut designed to put money in people’s hands to stimulate short-term economic activity. The War on Poverty (an idea he had rolled out during the campaign) sought to alleviate penury, especially among the elderly, by pushing for Medicare and expanded Social Security benefits. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women endorsed workplace equality, child care facilities for working women, paid maternity leave, better Social Security benefits for widows, and equal pay for comparable work. Federal employees got collective bargaining.

Even on civil rights, where Kennedy often gave into his fear of alienating the Southern bloc, he ultimately put the power of the federal government behind racial equality. He used federal troops to ensure the enrollment of black students at the universities of Mississippi and Alabama; his administration implemented the first “affirmative action” program for government employees and contractors. Some movement leaders seethed with frustration over his slow pace. But when the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick compiled post-assassination condolence letters to Jackie Kennedy for a 2010 book, she found affecting notes from African Americans who considered Kennedy, as one correspondent wrote, “a beacon—a light in the darkness who would indeed be a second Emancipator.” His picture graced walls and mantelpieces.

In foreign policy, too, Kennedy’s liberalism has been underappreciated. We hear nowadays that he ran to the right of Richard Nixon on national security in 1960—a claim supported chiefly by his invocation of the so-called missile gap. But that stance no more made Kennedy a hawk in 1960 than Barack Obama’s 2008 pledge to escalate in Afghanistan placed him to the right of John McCain. Overall, in 1960, it was Kennedy who expressed skepticism about the extension of military forces around the globe. He was, to be sure, a staunch anti-communist, and not averse to using hard power. But it was Nixon, not Kennedy, who was ready to go to war to defend Quemoy and Matsu, the tiny islands off China’s shore, while Kennedy questioned his rival’s ill-considered stance.

JFK’s 1961 inaugural address, too, is typically misread as saber-rattling. But his famous call to steel the nation for the cold war conflict was a prologue to the exposition of a more hopeful, conciliatory policy. In that speech, Kennedy endorsed the United Nations as “our last best hope,” warned against the stockpiling of nukes, urged arms-control negotiations, and held out the prospect of collaboration in science, medicine, and commerce. Press accounts treated it as a summons to work toward peace.

In office, Kennedy also preferred diplomacy to military intervention. His wariness of using force led him to deny the CIA-supported Cuban rebels the sufficient air cover they needed at the Bay of Pigs; 18 months later, it counseled him to buck his military chiefs and negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet missiles. He rejected initial calls to get involved in Laos, and his frequently voiced doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. military support for South Vietnam make it at least plausible to surmise that, had he lived, Kennedy wouldn’t have escalated as Johnson did (a speculative matter either way). Following the Cuban missile crisis, moreover, Kennedy redoubled efforts to pull back from the brink. He installed the “hot line” to Moscow and concluded a historic nuclear test-ban treaty. If by “cold warrior” we mean someone cognizant of the stakes of the superpower rivalry, JFK deserves the label. But his presidency was marked at least as much by efforts to defuse tensions as it was by the adventurism for which he has since become known.

Under Kennedy, popular support for government was near its peak. More than 70 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington most or all of the time. As the Vietnam war and the kulturkampf of the 1960s dragged on, that figure declined. Today, after decades of anti-government rhetoric and gridlock, debt and wage stagnation, it stands at about 20 percent. Promises of an activist government are met with cynicism, hostility, and questions about the price tag. The climate is inhospitable to those who would rally the public to higher purposes.

Layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs.

JFK is a reminder that this wasn’t always so. Retrospectives on him inevitably include the witty press conferences, the white-tie White House dinners with the likes of Pablo Casals, the photos of John Jr. playing under the Oval Office desk. But the warm feelings Americans have toward Kennedy may be something more than nostalgia for a glamorous presidency cut short. They reflect a wistfulness for the sense of common purpose and faith in a collective project that a proudly liberal president helped the nation achieve.

David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/115522/jfk-was-unapologetic-liberal

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The Five Best Kennedy Assassination Books
Jon Wiener
The Nation    November, 11, 2013

President Kennedy minutes before his assassination in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. (Baylor University Collections)

President Kennedy minutes before his assassination in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. (Baylor University Collections)

November 22 is of course the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I haven’t read all 1,000 books about it, but I have five favorites:

Don DeLillo, Libra
“We will build theories that gleam like jade idols,” says DeLillo’s surrogate, a CIA historian writing the secret history of Dallas. “We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” In the novel, two CIA veterans of the Bay of Pigs seek to arouse anti-Cuban sentiment by organizing an assassination attempt by a Castro supporter. But in their plan, the assassin—with an identity “made out of ordinary pocket litter”—will miss. DeLillo, as John Leonard wrote in The Nation, “is an agnostic about reality.”

Stephen King, 11/22/63
When Jake steps thru the secret passage in Al’s Diner in Maine, it takes him back to 1958; can he stick around and change the course of history by stopping Oswald before November 22, 1963? And what if he discovers that the conspiracy theorists were right, and JFK was shot by someone else? Eight hundred and fifty wonderful pages of time travel romance and adventure in a world where the food tastes better and the music is more fun—and where history itself resists change, with all its might.

Robert Caro, LBJ: The Passage of Power chapters 11–13
The assassination seen through LBJ’s eyes, one car back in the motorcade in Dealey Plaza: after Oswald’s first shot, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood shouted, “Get down! Get down!” Then LBJ “was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him,” as the two cars sped toward Parkland Hospital. When they arrived, Agent Youngblood said, ‘I want you and Mrs. Johnson to stick with me and the other agents as close as you can. We are going into the hospital and we aren’t gonna stop for anything or anybody. Do you understand?’ ‘Okay, pardner, I understand,’ Lyndon Johnson said.”

Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale
Mailer in his reporter-researcher mode: at age 70, he spent six cold months in Minsk, where Oswald had lived with his Russian wife Marina for thirty months starting in 1960. Mailer interviewed fifty people and used the KGB’s tapes from Oswald’s bugged apartment to paint a vivid picture of the dullness and misery of their lives. Mailer said he started “with a prejudice in favor of the conspiracy theorists,” but he found Oswald to have been a lonely Marxist megalomaniac and an angry loser. In the end, Robert Stone wrote in The New York Review of Books, Mailer had to conclude that “absurdity and common death gape far wider beneath us than high conspiracy, tragedy, or sacrifice.”

Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History
An encyclopedia of assassination conspiracies, with each and every one refuted, “revealed as a fraud on the American public.” One thousand six hundred oversize pages, plus a CD with 1,100 pages of notes, written by the legendary criminal prosecutor. “No group of top-level conspirators,” he argues, “would ever employ someone as unstable and unreliable as Oswald to commit the biggest murder in history, no such group would ever provide its hit man with a twelve-dollar rifle to get the job done, and any such group would help its hit man escape or have a car waiting to drive him to his death, not allow him to be wandering out in the street, catching cabs and buses to get away, as we know Oswald did.”

Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at UC Irvine.

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JFK at Rice University in September 1962. Image via Wiki Commons.

Rethinking the JFK Legacy

Steven M. Gillo

huffingtonpost.com October 27, 2013

As we approach the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination we are reminded of his enduring hold on the popular imagination. Once again countless magazine articles, newspaper stories, books, and television stories will focus on the man, his presidency, and his death. Politicians from both parties continue to invoke his name to sell themselves and their policies. Polls show that Kennedy is America’s favorite president, ranking above Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Public adulation of Kennedy baffles many historians who have spent the past twenty years assaulting the foundation of Camelot. The public sees him as a bold and gallant leader who inspired the young, helped the disadvantaged, pushed for civil rights, stood down the Russians, and added glamor and style to the White House.

In recent years, however, many historians have focused attention on Kennedy’s shortcomings: the obsession with Fidel Castro, his reluctant support of civil rights, and the escalation in Vietnam. They have also probed beneath the glossy Kennedy charm and discovered a man who was dependent on prescription medication and who possessed an insatiable sexual appetite. Kennedy, a recent critic charged, was “deficient in integrity, compassion, and temperance.” That is a harsh judgment, and certainly not one shared by most historians. Most would agree, however, that his short time in office prevented JFK from leaving a lasting legacy of accomplishment.

Why the wide gap between the way historians view Kennedy and how the public perceives him? Part of the problem is that historians have difficulty appreciating Kennedy’s emotional impact on the public. Kennedy was the first president to use television to bypass the Washington opinion-makers and communicate directly with the American public. Television made obsolete traditional models which used legislative accomplishments to determine influence.

Because of the intimate relationship Kennedy established with the American public many people felt a sense of personal loss at his death. The assassination affected America unlike any other single event in modern history — with the possible exception of 9/11. No American born prior to 1960 can forget where he or she was the moment they heard the news of the President’s death. Seventy-five hours of television coverage helped create a shared sense of national grief. Four of five Americans felt “the loss of someone very close and dear,” and more than half cried.

Inevitably, in the years that followed Americans have searched to give his death some meaning. Our refusal to accept that Kennedy’s death could have been the result of a random, inexplicable act of violence has led us to search for more satisfying explanations. We refuse to accept that a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could single-handedly kill a man as great as JFK. That search for meaning has lead to the creation of a mythical, heroic Kennedy. The thread that runs through most conspiracy theories, and permeates the popular view of JFK, is that nefarious individuals conspired to kill the President because he offered a new direction for the country.

But the Kennedy mystique is based on more than his photogenic qualities and his tragic death. In trying to understand Kennedy’s appeal I am reminded of what our first professional biographer, James Parton, wrote about Thomas Jefferson. “If Jefferson was wrong,” he wrote, “America is wrong. If Jefferson was right. America is right.”

Since the Puritans came to America searching for deliverance from the corruption of the Old World, Americans have believed in national destiny. Thomas Jefferson declared the new nation “the last best hope of mankind.” Herman Melville compared Americans to the biblical tribes of Israel, calling them “the peculiar chosen people… the Israel of our time.” At the heart of this belief was a faith that the future would always be better than the past. America stood as the exception to the historical rules which dictated that great civilizations eventually peaked and crumbled. Devoid of the class conflict, racial tensions, and the imperial designs that characterized other civilizations, America would move inevitably toward realizing its divinely inspired mission to be “as a city upon a hill.”

More than any president since FDR, Kennedy embodied these ideals of American greatness. Kennedy, like the nation he led, seemed larger than life. Every dimension of the New Frontier projected an image of strength and vitality: the inspirational rhetoric of sacrifice and idealism; the aristocratic elegance and democratic demeanor; the brilliant but compassionate advisers. Robert Frost captured the mood of the nation when he predicted that the Kennedy years would be an “Augustan age of poetry and power.”

The tragic series of events that followed Kennedy’s death challenged our faith in national destiny. A lost war in Vietnam and a crippling oil embargo reminded us that we could not shape the world in our own image. At home, racial violence, student protests, and government corruption revealed that America remained a deeply divided nation. During our time of trouble we turned to a heroic Kennedy for comfort. He reminded us of a time when America stood strong in the world, our nation felt united, and life seemed simpler. As the American dream slips further from the grasp of most people, as our faith in government and our hope for the future diminishes, we cling more tenaciously than ever to a mythic view of Kennedy.

We have transformed Kennedy into a metaphor of American greatness and judged all of his successors by that standard. Not surprisingly, they look dull by comparison. Politicians, eager to win the hearts of American voters, have tried to mimic Kennedy’s style and to steal his message. Republicans have invoked Kennedy’s memory to sell programs — supply-side economics, for example — that were antithetical to JFK’s own policies. President Obama flexed his political and legislative muscle to push through legislation that was far more ambitious than anything JFK could have imagined, yet even he, and his accomplishments, appear diminished by the comparison to a mythical Kennedy.

Over the years, the public, which has grown cynical and angry over raised expectations and diminished results, has moved to the sidelines of American politics waiting for the “next JFK.” Powerful, well-organized and well-funded, interest groups have moved to fill the void.

It is ironic that the memory of JFK would weaken political institutions. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 by advocating change and, at least on a rhetorical level, he challenged us to confront old ideas. “For the great enemy of truth,” he said in a famous Yale commencement address in 1963, “is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

Ultimately, our fascination with Kennedy tells us more about ourselves, our deeply rooted beliefs and our need for heroes, then it does shed light on the man or his times. Kennedy was a very mortal man, very much a product of his times. In life he offered few solutions to the pressing issues of his time. His memory, burdened by the weight of myth, limits our ability to find answers to the problems of our own time.


Steven M Gillon is Scholar-in-Residence at History and Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma

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