15 Years After Dallas
Benjamin C. Bradlee '43, one of John F. Kennedy's closest friends, once wrote that "History will best judge Kennedy in calmer days when time has made the tragic and the grotesque at least bearable." These words indicated Bradlee's healthy disrespect for historians. After all, they are predators to trade. They pick and chew over great lives and great events. As time passes, the pendulum swings and historical opinion changes.
John Kennedy '40 has been subject to such swings of the pendulum since his death in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Until now, his history has been written by those for whom his sudden passing was a milestone in their lives. What were you doing the day Kennedy was shot? For contemporaries, his assassination was a traumatic, indeed a cathartic experience; they remember the day vividly. For today's younger generation, however, the memory of Kennedy is a vague one. Young people who have no personal recollection of the man must rely on history for their perspective--and, to date, that history has provided a most unreliable witness.
There have been two waves of Kennedy historiography. The first wave mythologised the slain president and created the stained-glass image of a man who could do no wrong. In foreign affairs he was depicted as the great "liberal" who had saved the world during the Missile Crisis and led the United States out of the Cold War and into a new, more hopeful era of detente with the Soviet Union. Likewise, in domestic affairs, he was pictured as the champion of civil rights and the hero of the underprivileged. It seemed that Kennedy had done little, if anything wrong.
Somehow the tragic circumstances surrounding his death and the flood of sympathy which that released came to obscure what had actually happened. Achievements emasculated blunders. Washington became Camelot. Myth replaced reality. The nation craved a hero and Kennedy fit the bill. When Dave Powers said that "Being with Jack Kennedy in the White House was like dying and going to heaven," he captured the mood of the country at that time. It had all seemed so exciting, so different from the seamier Johnson and Nixon years. Kennedy had indeed been the best and the brightest.
But this image of a saint-like JFK was soon to be overturned. With the winds of Vietnam, Watergate, and the CIA revelations, so blew historical change and the second wave of Kennedy historiography. Something had gone drastically wrong with America in the post-Kennedy era. Historians searched frantically for the origins of disaster, and in so doing came to revise their opinions of Kennedy.
Almost overnight it was decided that he had not really been a "liberal" after all. In foreign policy, some of his more reactionary impulses were remembered: The Bay of Pigs, expanded involvement in Vietnam, the possibility of assassinating Castro. Even the Missile Crisis was reconsidered, and deemed an overreaction on Kennedy's part. In domestic affairs, it was remembered that blacks had gained little from him in terms of solid economic improvement while the profits for big business had continued to increase. His liberal health and education bills were mangled by the Congress.
In the cynical '70s Kennedy fell victim to history's need of a scapegoat. The nation was sick, disillusioned, embittered. Idealism had given way to disappointment and the sins of Johnson and Nixon were visited upon Kennedy. He was portrayed as the villain of the piece.
History, then, has not been kind to John F. Kennedy in the 15 years since his death. The predators have sacked the grave, yet somehow the essence of the Kennedy character remains elusive. Perhaps that essence has a chance of being captured now, in these "calmer days," when some objectivity can be applied to the Kennedy era. Young people judging Kennedy today have little ideological or emotional stake in their assessment of him. It is likely that they shall see Kennedy neither as a saint noras a Machiavellian prince. Indeed it is these very extremities of historical opinion which have done Kennedy the greatest disservice.
"Above all," Frank B. Freidel, Warren Professor of American History, has said recently, "Kennedy was a man of his times." He was a Cold Warrior in a nation that continued to be fanatically anti-communist in the early '60s. He was a liberal who argued that Green Berets were a superior and more enlightened alternative to Eisenhower's simplistically dangerous theory of massive retaliation and the bigger bang for the buck. He was a moderate who refused to push civil rights legislation through a Congress dominated by southern conservatives. He was a radical who, for the first time since Lincoln, confronted the nation with the "moral outrage" of the position of the black in society. He was a pragmatist who competed fiercely with the Soviets in the armaments race that he might parley with them from a position of strength. He was an idealist who sent the Peace Corps into Third World areas where Americans had never been before.
Kennedy's coat was of many colors, his house was of many mansions. There were mistakes--Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, arguably the Missile Crisis. Yet there were positive steps forward--a move toward detente with the Test Ban Treaty, the recognition of a world of diversity and of a nation's right to neutrality, the moral acknowledgement that the situation of black people was a disgrace to the nation. If these "calmer days" are to bring us a clearer judgment of JFK, then the black must be seen with the white, with a good deal of gray in between.
Today, it might be remembered that Kennedy gave America the promise, the hint of a different type of leadership. There was a hint that he could take the self-satisfied society out of itself, that he could strive for excellence. As Governor Michael S. Dukakis said at last month's dedication of the Kennedy School of Government, Kennedy was not an inspiration, "he was the inspiration" for his contemporaries. There was the promise that he could recognize his mistakes and, more, that he could learn from them.
Kennedy was neither incompetent nor great as president, but he showed enough to indicate that he had the potential for greatness. That is what was killed at Dallas. That is what we must recall in these calmer days.
Gerard Rice is a graduate of the University of Glasgow, Ireland, and is studying at Harvard as a Kennedy Fellow. He is writing a Ph.D. thesis on the Kennedy administration.