Would the Real JFK Please Stand Up!

Would the Real JFK Please Stand Up!

The latest TV series to be spawned from the ever fertile mind of horror writer Stephen King is called 11.22.63, a time travelling extravaganza which sees hero Jake Amberson projected back to 1960, where he spends the three following years working on a plan to thwart the assassination of JFK. Like many King plotlines, this one is notable for the way it taps into the national zeitgeist; the premise of the story acts as a deep sense of wish-fulfilment percolating up from the American conscience collective.

For there is, today, a sizable consensus with regard to the 35th president of the United States; many people seeing JFK as an emblem of a more radical time; a period of civil rights struggles and burgeoning freedoms which was eventually eclipsed by the intensification of the war in Vietnam, the economic malaise of the 1970s and the rise of neoliberalism. The Kennedy assassination, then, is transfigured from the death of an individual to the demise of an epoch; and it is often whispered in melancholy tones that, had he lived, had the assassination been prevented, history would have been very different.

A quaint vision to cling to, for sure, but one which also happens to be balderdash. For even the briefest perusal of Kennedy's political portfolio gives a concrete and damming idea of the type of politician he really was. From the beginning, his presidency was scarred by recklessness and corruption. His inauguration into the office of president in 1960 had been christened by electoral fraud, whereby opposition votes had been undercounted in Texas and Illinois in favour of the youthful pretender. A scion of one of those elite American families whose demeanour tends to resemble nothing so much as a Roman oligarchy in the declining phase of Empire, it was only his father's money, cachet and prestige which hoisted the pock-marked playboy into the political arena in the first place.

A fawning circle of intimates rapidly arose around him providing the fluffing a monstrous ego so desperately craved, alongside the never-ending procession of call girls smuggled into the executive mansion for fun and frolics while his spouse languished humiliated and bereft, and the wide variety of amphetamines which helped prime an increasingly ruined and spent body - all of which, of course, was kept assiduously below the public radar.

The combination of the tawdry and the furtive crossed over to his foreign policy. In the first half of 1961, Kennedy sponsored the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, an endeavour - born of heavy-handed, imperial arrogance - to illicitly and forcibly remove the government of a sovereign nation, Cuba under the Castro administration. Not that such a manoeuvre was remarkable by the standards of US foreign policy in a region which it had long since staked claim to by way of the Monroe doctrine, a region which, as one commentator infamously saw it, was nothing more than the United States' 'back yard'.

But the invasion was notable in as much as it reveals the sheer contempt the so-called 'people's president' had for the actual people, such that he was prepared to draw them into an illegal war without first consulting them. His other imperial adventures were hardly less scurrilous. Kennedy's advocates often say that, had Oswald's bullet missed its mark in Dallas, Texas, the number of American troops in Hanoi, Vietnam would have gone into rapid decline - but in actuality, in 1961, JFK financed an increase in the South Vietnamese army to the tune of an extra 20,000 troops and also sent a further 1,000 'military advisors' from the US in order to help train them. Further hikes in numbers followed, so that by the time of his death, Kennedy had raised the level of 'military advisors' from 900 to 16,000.

Even the image of Kennedy as a democrat, big on civil rights, imbibing the atmosphere of freedom and liberation in the 60s - is a questionable one. Back at home, JFK's relation to the Civil Rights movement was, to say the least, tendentious. Again it is a little known fact that he actually opposed the great march on Washington which took place in August 1963 and which saw Martin Luther King deliver his iconic 'I have a dream' speech. It is a matter of record that the Kennedy administration fought to suppress the event, and the Kennedy clan more generally were both suspicious and unnerved by the prospect of it; those ingrained patrician sensitivities swiftly aggravated by any demonstration of power on the part of the 'mob'.

And, of course, JFK's organic sense of contempt toward the people he led was perhaps best exemplified by the fact that he was willing to gamble with their lives in the millions. Kennedy's conduct in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been skilfully recast, depicted as the bold, bluff attempt of a maverick leader to finally draw a line in the sand, a necessary last stand against encroaching tyranny, but once again the truth is a touch more tawdry.

In reality, several opportunities to negotiate some kind of peace, before the tensions of American-Soviet diplomatic relations assumed nuclear proportions - were in fact notably squandered, or to be more precise - JFK deliberately and consciously ratcheted up the pressure. He did so by launching an inflammatory and utterly one-sided propaganda blitz against the Soviets, a throwback to the militant nationalism of JFK's electoral campaign of 1960 in which he had derided the previous administration as having been too soft.

Then Kennedy had spoken of a 'missile gap' which had opened up in favour of the Soviets as a consequence of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration's flaccid foreign policy, though any such 'gap' was merely a fabulation on Kennedy's part, for America had an overwhelming nuclear preponderance. In 1962 and in 1960 Kennedy used the same combination of factual distortion and apocalyptic language in order to appeal to the bellicose and the credulous, to whip up jingoism and national sentiment into a frenzy, even if it meant that the momentum unleashed by such calculated hysteria was in danger of pulling both countries toward nuclear annihilation.

Kennedy's reckless, belligerent, quick draw 'diplomacy' was exacerbated by the fact that he was, in many ways, the era's first 'celebrity' president - and was determined to save face at any cost. A negotiated solution was eventually arrived at, and the USSR was compelled into making a very public climb down - partly because their leader wasn't prepared to blow up the world on the basis of the raw, corrosive fuel of his own ambition. And yet, the Kennedy administration failed to relay to its public how one of the terms in the agreement was that the US withdraw its missiles from Turkey, missiles which had acted as a clear provocation to Russia, and part and parcel of the reason why the Soviets had sought to fortify Cuba in the first place.

Again, the political context and the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring were subserviated to the glib, demagogic image of a youthful, breathless leader, leaning out from the podium, framed in a pose of Churchillian like determination. The most common question which surrounds the period nowadays is - 'Do you remember where you were the day John F Kennedy was killed?' To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, however - it might be more pertinent to ask - 'Do you remember where you were the week Kennedy nearly killed everyone else'?

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