Brown/My Turn: Seeking clarity on JFK
In the coming month, we will be subjected to numerous commemorations surrounding the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Few events in American history have unleashed such an avalanche of controversy as far as what actually happened and how our future could have unfolded had he survived that awful day in Dallas.
The progressive Left is planning to have a field day with their own brand of conspiratorial thinking, some of which combine fact with conjecture as we have seen with Carl Doerner’s ominous polemics on this page. Some of their reasoning is plausible enough while others (such as the increasingly wacky FlybyNews) are off in tin-foil hat territory. The satirical newspaper, “The Onion” captured these nuances perfectly with their blaring headline from Nov. 22, 1963; “Kennedy Killed by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons. President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles!”
To be sure, there are grounds for disbelieving the Warren Commission’s findings. The CIA, Mafia and Castro did hold grudges against Kennedy and restraint wasn’t one of their finer attributes. The 1960s saw the murders of the Kennedys, King and Malcolm X (albeit the last by the vengeful Nation of Islam), which accounts for quite a few “lone gunmen.” On the other hand, the United States has always been a violent gun culture and presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and both Roosevelts were all targeted by deranged shooters.
Facts rarely sway those set in their ways. According to accepted Leftist mythology, Kennedy’s assassination was a coup engineered by the CIA and forces in the American military who were worried that he was about to end the accelerating war in Vietnam and make peace with the Soviet Union.
Conversely, if this foul plot had been foiled, Kennedy would have followed through on his plans to dismantle the CIA, bring an end to the Cold War and forestall the burgeoning Southeast Asian misadventure. With these calamities averted, the nation and the world would have entered a new golden age of peace and prosperity.
I wish it were that simple. Unfortunately, such wishful thinking ignores some salient details about the time period as well as demonstrating a charitable view of human nature.
A more realistic scenario comes from noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Team of Rivals,” the basis for the movie “Lincoln”) whose husband was a former Kennedy adviser. Goodwin points out that for all his charisma and eloquence, Kennedy was unskilled in how to work the Senate. Therefore, the transformational Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) might never have become laws. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was able to triumph because he was a hard-line politician. He knew who to arm-twist, cajole and wheel and deal with. Ironically at the time, Johnson’s heart was in it. He had grown up in poverty in contrast to Kennedy, the blue-blood scion who was a reluctant convert to the Civil Rights cause.
Had these measures failed to pass, tension between white and black America might have descended further into violence and polarization, eventually to be pushed over a chasm by the assassination of Dr. King. Goodwin also surmises that had we pulled out of Vietnam in 1963, North Vietnam would not have hesitated to conquer her southern neighbor. Without the eventual revulsion against the war, this act would have been interpreted as a humiliating failure, much as the loss of China was viewed in 1949.
The 1960s was a conservative decade for mainstream America, the “Silent Majority” being a real entity terrified by the emerging Black Power movement, which Kennedy’s survival might have done nothing to mitigate. Goodwin ends her thesis with the harrowing observation of racial tensions and the loss of Vietnam resulting in a right-wing reaction in 1968, at best putting Richard Nixon into the White House, at worst, third party candidate, George Wallace.
Minus the humbling experience of the Vietnam debacle; the potent political, social and spiritual transformations that we now take for granted might have been stunted or delayed. The peace, feminist and environmental movements that sprang from the activism surrounding that war would have remained marginalized minorities instead of becoming forces that changed history. Although the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict did end and the CIA reined in (temporarily, at least), the world today faces dire challenges that have nothing to do with the events of a half-century ago. However, there is one postscript to John F. Kennedy that bears reflection. In his inaugural address he offered the following immortal words; “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The tea party Republicans have made a farce of such words, as they selfishly contribute nothing, build nothing and create nothing. Nihilistic by nature, they exist only to deny and destroy. Perhaps it is fortunate that John Fitzgerald Kennedy didn’t live to see the day when public service became so tarnished and so abused.
Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer. He is a frequent contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.