Last week the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was marked with solemn reflection. Scores of retrospectives appeared, addressing JFK’s legacy, the conspiracies surrounding his assassination, and the psychology behind his oversized role in American culture and politics. To little surprise, these analyses were extraordinarily narrow in scope, glossing over or ignoring the many criminal policies of the Kennedy administration, with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the imposition of the Cuban embargo serving as paradigm examples.
De-linking the obvious tragedy of Kennedy’s premature death from what actually occurred in the early 1960s is therefore necessary, if only to honestly examine the wider motivations and subsequent interpretations of the Kennedy administration, and to better understand how Kennedy’s story evolved in a particular fashion.
Regarding his legacy, JFK maintains high esteem among the general public; in a poll released just days before the anniversary, an overwhelming majority (74%) ranked him as an “outstanding/above average” president. This is an expected and understandable result; the tragic nature of his death contributes to such strong support, casting an uneasy shadow over critical examination. This “what could have been” factor has been predominant in the assessment of JFK’s service. The administration itself was lionized as a modern-day Camelot, an assembly of the “best and the brightest” who employed U.S. power in unique, often horrific forms.
Without getting deep into the record, the two aforementioned cases of Vietnam and Cuba involved policies (chemical warfare, imposing an embargo for political reasons) that approximate acts of terrorism even under accepted U.S. standards, and should serve as strong-enough indictment to radically rethink the conventional wisdom surrounding JFK’s legacy.
It is here, in its embrace of the JFK legacy, where the so-called modern Left in the U.S. has truly exposed its hypocrisy. It is rather bemusing to see popular “left” commentator Bill Maher refer to Kennedy as “our liberal icon,” a description that reaches the very heights of Orwellian thought. Ignoring the overall ideological turf war Kennedy waged between the mainstream Left and Right, a cursory glance at Kennedy’s record reveals a stark chasm between Left policies and what occurred under his administration. Kennedy's mixed record on civil rights, his intensification of traditional U.S. interventionist policies and reckless gambling with nuclear weapons do not describe a "liberal icon," and it makes one question the motivation of many on the so-called Left for embracing such a figure.
Of course, we are being led to believe that an honest assessment is actually underway. According to The New York Times, the “President John F. Kennedy [that] students learn about today is not their grandparents’ J.F.K.” The Times accurately points out that textbooks have indeed changed over time in their telling of Kennedy, though of course it could go further. After all, the public more often than not tends to be ahead of historians in expressing an honest thought about the past.
The largest single factor contributing to the popular evaluation of Kennedy’s presidency is the omnipresent “conspiracy” surrounding his assassination. There is a functional element to such fixation in that it deflects attention from the above mentioned crimes, which should be the critical point of analysis. The JFK conspiracy pot continues to be stirred, even in high places, but one has to wonder where the purpose of it all lies. Certainly, there is a strong historical need to clarify what took place, especially given the dubious nature of the official account. Whether or not there was a conspiracy, however, is rather inconsequential at this point; while the truth is always desirable, there are still negative consequences of that era that must be rectified. The American usage of Agent Orange, for instance, continues to wreak havoc on Vietnamese citizens and U.S. veterans alike—until that is rectified, there is little need to continue pouring over the Zapruder film until one’s eyes bleed.
The pervasiveness of the Kennedy image in American culture is, in large part, fueled by the continuing questioning of the assassination’s suspicious nature. Many will likely continue to question the official story, and our consideration of JFK’s legacy shows the effects of this: intellectual focus is disproportionately skewed away from a serious and legitimate “rethinking” of Camelot. Skepticism, however, should not be confused with conspiratorial pathology: as with most so-called “conspiracy theories,” there is an overreliance on circumstantial evidence and a noted lack of informed consensus. The true critical skeptic in this particular case should care less about whether there was one or two shooters; the sights, as it were, should be set on the legacy of half-truths that has been carefully constructed regarding an extremely tumultuous and influential time in U.S. history.
The modern-day parallels with JFK’s time are also worthy of examination. For many, Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy represented a new hope and a political tabula rasa; they ostensibly represented a sea change from the previous administration, and a "new beginning" for American prestige overseas. Both are also noted for their “ideals,” “vision,” and “soaring rhetoric” that perplexingly never matches up with their actions. In fact, much of the Kennedy legacy, as constructed, rests on the substance of Kennedy’s words: his death was therefore doubly tragic due to the unfulfilled “promise” of his articulated vision. Obvious enough, but the words of anyone in a position of significant power are generally meaningless, and should be held to the strictest scrutiny. In this case, if Left icons Obama and Kennedy have accomplished anything, it was to affirm long-standing trends in U.S. foreign policy, and intensifying them in certain instances (the aforementioned Vietnam, and more recently drone warfare).
This point lends itself to the discussion of legacy and the psychology informing it; it is a given that nations honor their leaders, especially ones (that are perceived to be) held in high esteem. Nevertheless, it often approximates religious fervor, and ultimately fails to capture the whole picture. When passed down over time, these beliefs become ingrained, making it difficult to take a step back and honestly question what occurred. This sort of subjective perception arises out of several circumstances, including: external pressure, self-gratification, and the desire to create a unified social and political narrative (read: indoctrination).
Of course, looking in the mirror is an extremely difficult task, in both our personal and political lives. We (meaning the citizens of the United States) are always telling others to critically examine their past, but such a standard is equally applicable at home. Truth is often a painful and inconvenient thorn. Touching on this idea, in December 1963, Malcolm X infamously remarked that the assassination was an example of “the chickens coming home to roost.” While undoubtedly insensitive given the timing of the comment, it lends itself to a wider perspective; seeing such actions occur on our own soil, the kind of which we regularly propagate elsewhere, is a traumatic experience.
As that the panegyrics on Kennedy have temporarily subsided, we can now pull the curtain back and ask what kind of society we wish to live: one that engages in self-delusion, or one interested in honest assessment? Taken one step further, the Kennedy legacy that has been built and believed by so many could resemble North Korean-style obedience; double that for the ludicrous narrative surrounding Ronald Reagan (another topic for another time). When we point and ridicule others for such mass delusion, it would be wise to ask if we are not engaging in imitation by another name.
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Assassination, Camelot, JFK, Legacy, Politics, Barack Obama