John Fitzgerald Kennedy would have been 100 years old this week, had an assassin’s bullet still shrouded in mystery not taken his life in 1963.
As a child, Kennedy was something of both a haunting and a heroic figure to me. Everyone talked about the young, eloquent, scholarly President and how particularly unjust, unfair and utterly tragic his death was. Were I a Catholic, I’m sure I would feel there was even some Book of Job like test of faith involved in his death.
As a typical teen who moderately rebelled against the shibboleths of childhood, I came to see Kennedy as a man whose death was conspiratorial to the extreme and therefore deeply unfair, but beyond that and the singular moment of the titanic Cuban Missile Crisis, I took the view that Kennedy was rather young and inexperienced and died before he could grow into a genuine leadership position.
This was a view that many in America and throughout the world held for decades. It was a by-product of a Nixon era that killed idealism surrounding the White House and a slightly later Reagan era that loved to present small details and rhetorical coups into actual achievements.
But while Reagan said ‘tear down this wall’, Kennedy was actually working to build bridges over various walls, including ‘that wall’, throughout the latter periods of his Presidency.
When JFK became President he was a breath of fresh idealism during a Cold War that had previously been dominated by the ‘egg head’ Adlai Stevenson on the left and a John Birch Society on the right that came out with frequent publications on how even Ike Eisenhower was a ‘secret communist’.
The businesslike/ultra-politician Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to a JFK who looked and sounded like the future. Kennedy like his personal acquiescence, the right-wing but libertarian Cold Warrior hawk Barry Goldwater (yes, such things existed in the Cold War), was an instinctual and ideological anti-communist, but Kennedy also offered a king of below the surface pragmatism that many mistook for weakness.
Crucially, both the Democrat Kennedy and the Republic Goldwater, unlike today’s class of US politicians, did not harbour personal animus against Russian culture, the Russia people or Russia’s pre-Bolshevik Orthodox Christian traditions. In many ways, the American anti-communists at the time were friends of Russia’s Orthodox tradition, albeit at times ‘friends’ that they didn’t necessarily need or want.
Upon becoming President, Kennedy surrounded himself with family. His brother Robert who was the most scholarly and impassioned of the Kennedy clan became Attorney General, while his more street minded political mover and shaker brother Edward managed the campaign.
The young Kennedy White House came into contact with what we now call the ‘deep state’ fairly early on. Kennedy who favoured transparency in government was viscerally appalled at the covert attempts of organisations like the CIA to sabotage this transparency.
The failed CIA orchestrated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 infuriated Kennedy. It was at this time that Kennedy developed a seething hatred of the CIA. Kennedy saw the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year as a direct outgrowth of the CIA’s counter-productive provocation of the Soviet Union’s Cuban ally.
It was only after the Bay of Pigs disaster that Robert Kennedy started to hold secret conversations with the Soviet Intelligence officer Georgi Bolshakov. Through him, the White House was at long last able to speak directly with the Soviet Union and speak in a civilised manner away from the public spotlight. This may have gone a long way in helping Kennedy to avert disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR set up a direct hotline between the two countries to avoid future confrontations. It cannot and must not be understated how the covert communications of the Kennedy White House prior to the Missile Crisis helped lay the foundation for the two sides officially talking to one another during a time when communication was growing ever more essential.
Kennedy’s first major public foreign policy shift came during a speech in June of 1963 at the American University. The so-called Peace Speech was one of the final major speeches Kennedy would give before being killed in November of 1963.
In his speech, Kennedy said,
“What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.
I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.
Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles–which can only destroy and never create–is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace.
I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realise that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war–and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task”.
“No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland–a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.
Today, should total war ever break out again–no matter how–our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the cold war, which brings burdens and dangers to so many nations, including this Nation’s closest allies–our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons.
In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours–and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.
So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal”.
This speech was without a doubt the most radical shift in favour of peace delivered by any major US President during the Cold War. The speech challenged the prevailing narrative of the US stand-off with the Soviet Union. It implied that dialogue, genuine co-existence, attempts at building mutual understandings and that seeing Soviet citizens as ‘fellow men’ rather than alien objects was possible. In 1960s America this was revolutionary. To the deep state, it was treason.
Many have commented on the proximity of this speech with Kennedy’s untimely assassination. Kennedy’s assassination is a subject which the world will probably never have all the answers too. Like 9/11, it remains an issue that will forever divide America and the world, even though most people inside and outside of the US, do not believe the official stories about either tragedy. Still, no one can agree on which ‘non-official’ version is the most accurate.
Had Kennedy lived and had he won a second term, he may have been able to engage in something even more meaningful than Nixon’s greatly undervalued detente. Kennedy could have brought peace between superpowers and done so without firing a shot let alone compromising the integrity and dignity of either side.
Kennedy’s ability to use his bother Robert’s mind to convey the truth of White House thinking to the Soviet Union combined with JFK’s public call for peace could have changed the world. In this sense, Kennedy’s intelligence, dignity and optimism was more than just window dressing. He was in fact, the real deal.
Now that we’re living in a new and even more foolish Cold War, Donald Trump offered a breath of fresh air when it came to thinking about Russia. Where Kennedy was killed by the bullet, Donald Trump’s plans for peace have been killed by a thousand little blows. Trump’s Russophobic opposition are trying to assassinate his credibility and character.
Even if someone in Trump’s team, whether Mike Flynn or Jared Kushner or anyone else is ‘talking with the Russians’ ,what is wrong with that? Churchill said “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war’. Kennedy understood this, so too does Donald Trump.
I’ve always felt that Donald Trump like Kennedy is honest about his political intentions and that also his heart is in the right place. They are very different men but both came to the conclusion that peace is worth striving for.
Indeed no matter the style of delivery, peace is a universal language. The deep state and others who seek to profit from conflict cannot speak of it, but they can hear it.
They have shown in the past that they will stop at nothing so that others cannot hear the call.
RIP John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (1917-1963).