Camelot's Last Chapter
JFK's Last Hundred Days: An Intimate Portrait of a Great President
By Thurston Clarke (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 432pp £20)
To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace
By Jeffrey D Sachs (The Bodley Head 249pp £14.99)
John F Kennedy, who was assassinated fifty years ago this November, remains the great mythic hero for the postwar American Left. Lyndon Baines Johnson's contributions to civil rights and the war on poverty were blighted by the Vietnam War; Jimmy Carter failed even to secure re-election; Bill Clinton's presidency was undermined by a small-c conservatism and an all-too-unpresidential private life. Kennedy's reputation, however, remains untarnished by either time or evidence, petrified in amber by the tragedy of his untimely death. Although Obama's presidential campaigning has been most consciously Lincolnian in its language and symbolism, it is against Kennedy that he has most consistently been measured, not least because they are two of the most powerful orators to have occupied the White House in recent years.
While Kennedy's presidency was by no means a failure, much of his elevated reputation is based on a vision of promise cut short rather than an actual record of delivery. The Kennedy fan club, among whom the authors of these two new books are swivel-eyed members, argues that his early experiences as president were transformative, awakening him to the dangers of uncontrolled nuclear rivalry as well as the moral urgency of the civil rights movement. In his last months of office, the president began to chart a new course for America: giving an extraordinary address in support of civil rights in June 1963 and proposing sweeping new legislation to defend those rights; outlining a raft of measures to fight poverty; and beginning a difficult process of de-escalation with the Soviets. Kennedy had also become disillusioned with what he recognised was a largely unwinnable war in Vietnam and indicated privately that once he had won re-election in 1964 he would seek to withdraw American troops from the region. Had he lived, so the argument goes, the worst crises of the 1960s might have been avoided.
The theory, while born of nostalgia and sentimentality, is not without merits. Thurston Clarke makes as eloquent a case for it as any have in JFK's Last Hundred Days, recounting many of the efforts that Kennedy initiated in the concluding months of his life. It is certainly true that JFK became a more staunch friend of the civil rights movement and a more reluctant Cold Warrior in his final year in office. Not having had much personal contact with African Americans during a cloistered and privileged upbringing, he had been slow to recognise the human cost of American racism. However, the brutality of Southern resistance to court-ordered desegregation, combined with an awareness of the damage the South was doing to the United States's reputation around the world, impressed on him the necessity of decisive federal action to defend black people's rights. Martin Luther King declared Kennedy's June speech to be 'the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president'.
Meanwhile, the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which he found himself surrounded by a coterie of military figures beating the drum for nuclear war, taught him to mistrust the advice of generals and to question some of the basic assumptions of the Cold War mindset that had dominated the Eisenhower era. His overtures to Khrushchev, which culminated in the limited test-ban treaty, the signing of which is recounted (unfortunately, rather flimsily) in Jeffrey D Sachs's To Move the World, helped to reduce superpower tensions to their lowest point in a generation and traced a path towards peaceful co-existence. Here, the contrast with the parochial LBJ could not have been clearer. During the Missile Crisis the vice president had been among the most belligerent voices for confrontation. It was no surprise that his accession to power was marked by a rapid - and ultimately fateful - expansion of the US military presence in Vietnam.
As plausible as this argument is, though, it offers little of the messiness of real history, merely a straight line drawn from 22 November 1963 into an alternate future of hopes and dreams. The presidency is a powerful office, but the assumption that just because Kennedy thought or said something it would have come to pass is not so much analysis as wish-fulfilment. Clarke fails to note how little legislative progress Kennedy had made on civil rights before his death, for instance, or the extent to which Johnson's towering influence over Congress (combined with his calculated exploitation of Kennedy's assassination) made possible the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. Johnson's domestic achievements, Clarke sniffs, were 'largely a compendium of Kennedy's bills and initiatives', as if proposing a bill were all that was needed to get it passed. Clarke seems to suggest, too, that the Vietnam crisis - which would worsen substantially in late 1963 due to a coup launched against the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, that Kennedy had both known of and approved - could have been contained by presidential will alone. It certainly seems unlikely that Kennedy would have escalated matters in the way Johnson did. But, following the test-ban treaty, Kennedy had already come under attack from the Right for seemingly following his father's habits and seeking to 'appease' the enemy. The political pressure on him to avoid a further humiliating retreat in the face of total collapse in Vietnam would have been extraordinary.
In short, the cards in this story are stacked. Johnson is blamed when the arc of history tends towards the negative and Kennedy is credited with successes that followed his death. Moreover, to suggest that everything would have unfolded as Kennedy had planned if only he had not died is not only to ignore the deeper historical forces that contributed to the gradual erosion of the political centre in the Sixties, but also to downplay the role of contingency: an omission that is peculiar at the best of times, but seems almost perverse in the case of a man whose plans were ended by the greatest contingency of them all - an untimely death. The reality of a second Kennedy term would undoubtedly have been much less glowing. If history tells us anything, it is that, in recent decades, death has been the only way a president has managed to leave office with an unblemished record.
We must not speak ill of the dead but neither should we unduly praise historical figures because of what we want them to be. Kennedy's finest attributes were expressions of the aristocratic virtues: grace, beauty, charm, tremendous personal bravery, eloquence and honour. People loved him and he excelled in the charismatic and ceremonial aspects of his office. He was as close as the United States has come to a king and, like many monarchs, he loved to fuss over details of pomp and pageantry - he designed the sterling-silver calendars that were presented to his Missile Crisis advisers, personally directed the decoration of Air Force One, down to its fuselage design, and was indignant when Governor John Chafee of Rhode Island presented him with a cheap vase and an unsigned card as an anniversary gift. At times, the vision and the iconography of the office seemed to occupy him more than the grit and grind of law-making. Indeed, Kennedy's conduct as a politician was characterised above all by a surprising degree of caution for a man who spoke so boldly. Rather than the actions of a crusading radical, some of the most significant legislative outcomes of JFK's thousand days in office were a pair of major tax cuts, measures whose economic necessity continue to be debated but whose political value was beyond doubt in the lead-up to a potentially difficult re-election battle. To suggest that JFK's second term would have been emboldened and transformative, therefore, seems not dissimilar to the thoughts that were voiced by many liberals about Obama in the autumn of 2012: claims based on hopes and sympathetic expectation, but also on a somewhat narrow understanding of the constraints imposed upon any person when handed the keys to the Oval Office.
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Alex Goodall is a Lecturer in History at the University of York. Loyalty and Liberty: American Countersubversion from World War I to the McCarthy Era will be out in December.