Sean Ledwith looks behind the mythology on the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination

John F Kennedy

November 22nd of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the 35th President of the US, John Kennedy. TV and radio schedules are already filling up with sensationalist and speculative documentaries exploring the circumstances of his death in Dallas. We can also expect a plethora of newspaper and magazine articles mourning the alleged loss of American liberalism’s fallen hero and how the US would be a different and better place today if he had lived. Horror writer, Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is written in this vein of misplaced nostalgia. The plot revolves around a time-travel attempt to prevent Kennedy’s assassination and avert the tumultuous history of the rest of the 1960s:

‘Or what about Vietnam? Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation.  Kennedy might have changed his mind. Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that. Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher’s bill that high if Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas?’

11/22/63King’s premise is the widely accepted fallacy that Kennedy represented a more enlightened and sophisticated quality of leadership than Presidents such as LBJ, Nixon and Reagan who would follow him. In fact, a more accurate estimation of JFK was reflected in Malcolm X’s infamous reaction to the assassination as ‘a case of the chickens coming home to roost’.

Malcolm was obliquely referring to the now undisputed fact that Kennedy himself was the focus of numerous conspiracies – not as the target but as the originator. Whatever the truth of Kennedy’s assassination, what is fully documented is that at the same time the latest of his plots to assassinate Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was in operation. This was just one of a string of illegal and reckless initiatives pursued by Kennedy during his time in the White House that are comparable to any of the nefarious schemes of later Presidents. The heroic image manufactured by his hagiographers after 1963 has also been stripped away by numerous revelations about vote-rigging and womanising that have exposed JFK as little more than just another venal capitalist politician. The fact that he was younger and had better speech-writers than his successors should not obscure the conservative and pro-imperialist agenda he unwaveringly pursued before and during his Presidency.

Conservative roots

Kennedy’s political roots sit uneasily with his posthumous liberal aura. His father, Joseph, had made his fortune out of bootlegging in the Prohibition era, used insider trading to make a killing out of the Wall Street Crash and then manoeuvred himself into being appointed US Ambassador to the UK. Kennedy Snr, however, was unceremoniously fired from this position at the outbreak of WW2 for his thinly-veiled support for Hitler. Thereafter, JFK and his brothers were the willing pawns of their father’s displaced ambition to be President.

Kennedy was elected to Congress at the end of WW2 and promptly became associated with the McCarthyist faction in US politics that were engaged in a ruthless and paranoid purge of leftists from the media and the labour movement. The undisguised plan to win the White House came to a climax in the 1960 election. Kennedy famously got the better of Nixon in the first-ever televised Presidential debate – although tellingly most radio listeners perceived the latter to be the more convincing performer. Ironically, JFK’s appeal was partly based on him actually being further to the right on foreign policy than Nixon. Kennedy exaggerated data about Russian nuclear capability in order to accuse his rival of condoning a missile gap that disadvantaged the US.

Kennedy also cleverly made a sympathetic phone call to the then incarcerated Martin Luther King – although this was only after been reluctantly talked into by his advisers.

Even with these tactical advantages, Kennedy’s win was one of the narrowest in history and is still overshadowed by allegations of vote-rigging.

Kennedy’s counter-revolution

CastroJFK’s first key decision upon entering the White House in 1961 was to authorise the implementation of his Republican predecessor’s plan to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with a CIA-funded invasion. The operation descended into an embarrassing and costly fiasco as the so-called rebels were routed at the Bay of Pigs on the Cuban coast. Kennedy, like the rest of the US ruling class ,had overlooked the fact that the revolutionary regime had popular support at that time  as it had replaced a pro-American stooge just a couple of years earlier. The motley anti-Castro forces cobbled together by the President and his team were no better than the brutal Contras that Reagan would later use to try to undermine the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1980s. The humiliation inflicted on Kennedy provoked him into a vengeful and secret war against Castro-known as Operation Mongoose-that relied on increasingly desperate and bizarre methods, including exploding cigars and poisoned milkshakes

Missile Madness

JFK’s counter-revolutionary instincts ultimately brought the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse. Castro eventually turned to the Russians to protect himself against the President’s plots and agreed to their decision to install nuclear missiles on Cuba in 1962. Kennedy’s subsequent handling of the Missile Crisis is usually portrayed by his apologists as his finest hour and as an exemplary piece of steely statesmanship. The crisis was only defused, however, by a secret deal between JFK and the Russian leader, Khrushchev, to withdraw US missiles from Turkey in return for the latter dismantling the ones in Cuba. Kennedy was happy to indulge in the global acclaim without publicising the inconvenient details of the negotiations. For the tense thirteen days of the crisis, the President had seriously contemplated an attack on Russian forces as a viable option. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, were willing to devise any deception to justify an escalation. A later memoir by one of the participants in JFK’S team recalled:

‘If the choice was to attack, the president still preferred a surgical strike at the missiles alone, but he told the chiefs to plan also for a full-scale invasion. Robert Kennedy even strained to find a pretext for invasion. He toyed with the thought of staging a fake attack on the American naval base at Guantanamo or staging another ship disaster in Havana–”sink the Maine again, or something.’

Escalation in Vietnam

Kennedy’s policy in South East Asia was equally blundering and ultimately catastrophic. The notion that he would have pursued a different policy regarding Vietnam is tenuous at best and overlooks the fact that Kennedy was the President who authorised the first major escalation of the conflict at the start of his administration. He increased the number of US troops deployed in Vietnam from 400 to 18,000 and also approved the first use of napalm and defoliation as legitimate methods of war. All these were designed to prop up the right-wing dictator of South Vietnam, Diem, in the same manner later Presidents such as Reagan would shore up pro-American despots around the globe. Noam Chomsky notes:

‘In internal discussion, Kennedy’s consistent position was that everyone must “focus on winning the war.” There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion’.

A brake on Civil Rights

Continuity with the establishment agenda also characterised Kennedy’s domestic policy. After his opportunistic support for Martin Luther King in the 1960 election, JFK backpedalled on facilitating the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Riders who courageously confronted segregation in the southern states received no support from the White House, and in fact Kennedy went out of his way to thwart their campaign of direct action. King, the figurehead of the movement, was the target of FBI phone-tapping, authorised by the President. The March on Washington that climaxed with King’s legendary ‘I have a dream’ speech was initially blocked by Kennedy and then only authorised after King’s warning that semi-insurrection would be the inevitable result if the march was cancelled. Civil Rights activist, Roger Wilkins, observed:

‘The Kennedys wanted it both ways. They wanted to appear to be our friends and they wanted to be the brake on our movement…’

Malcolm X‘s controversial reaction to Kennedy’s assassination encapsulated the growing suspicion of many black Americans that the President’s agenda was based solely on manipulating the movement for electoral gain.

After Kennedy

Shortly after JFK’s assassination the US lurched into a period of urban uprisings and student protest. Kennedy’s political supporters generated a notion that this could have been avoided if he had not gone to Dallas in 1963. It is equally likely, however, that he might have been forced out of office by the personal scandals that were starting to become common knowledge in the Washington media. More importantly, we should not accept the dominant image of the post-Kennedy era as a time of political despair. In reality, it marked the renaissance of American radicalism with groups such as the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society and the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement seizing the political initiative. These groups and others represent a legacy that is really worth commemorating

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters