Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.

You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013

Robert Dallek brings passion and a sympathetic curiosity to my last three simple questions about John F. Kennedy — subject of Dallek’s mainstream classic: An Unfinished Life.

First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.

Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?

Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.

DallekProfessor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.

Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.


4 thoughts on “Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

  1. Chris Lydon poses three questions as the semicentennial of JFK’s assassination approaches.

    “First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.”

    NPR’s “On the Media” (11/15/13) did an interview with a libertarian editor (a Boomer himself, barely) who asserted that it’s the colossal self-importance of the Baby Boomers that explains the persistence of the Camelot legend, and all the assassination wonkery, beyond their historical stale date. Possibly it’s that, plus the postwar generation’s having a longer lifespan during which to bear witness, and the availability of contemporary media coverage of the Kennedy years pretty much on demand. By way of contrast, I don’t remember any of my elders waxing mournful fifty years after McKinley was cut down, but then neither in 1901 nor in 1951 were there media so advanced technically as to bring the death of the “Napoleon of Protection” vividly to mind.

    On election night in 1960, having just cast my first vote in a presidential election for JFK, I followed TV coverage of the returns with a German immigrant couple who’d been in America for a generation. (They had voted for JFK, too.) It was not a serene experience…the election was close. We took a home-state pride in having a Massachusettsan in the running, especially a youthful man who with his wife possessed an almost preternatural glamor and assuredness.

    I’m sure that part of our affection for the First Couple lay in their reflection back to us of our own idealized youthful selves, and our projection onto the country as a whole of their mesmeric qualities. (A closer look at the 1960 electoral map might have cured us of the latter notion.)

    “Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?”

    I don’t think Jack Kennedy’s mind was ever in thrall to the “hobgoblin of consistency”… he had like many charismatic people a useful knack for mild dissociation. Despite his family’s culture of strong sibling competition and patriarchal dominance, it seems he could evade being intimidated, and adapt the expectations heaped on him to his own plans and purposes. (As one instance, he likely formed his own ambition to be president, independently of his father’s urgings, while still a student at Choate.)

    We saw his easy charm and sharp intelligence at press conferences, and imagined he could command life to do his bidding. I’d heard nothing of the sick child who devoured history books in his various hospital beds, although I did know of his heroism during the Pacific War. Before his accession to the presidency it must have struck his vis-à-vis as inauspicious: Jack frivoling away his time, or declining to engage his intellect and powers of persuasion, or sidelined by a recurrence of an illness. But all the while, unnoticed and unremarked, he was … like the bed-ridden youth he’d been … advancing in personal cultivation and self-confidence.

    I think it’s this hidden side of the man that served him and the country so well in a crisis: the reserves of learning patiently vetted, pondered, and absorbed; the fashioning out of invalidism an almost spiritual practice of self-mastery.

    “Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.”

    I did it, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow. Or, since all the suspects named over the intervening years are guilty, no one stands responsible. Events, says our host sometimes, events are the proximate cause of things. Contingencies, say I, contingencies are the culprits.

    I’m not trying to be flippant. If a nonentity like a Czolgosz or a Guiteau is imaginable as the assassin of our chief of state, so too is a nonentitous Lee Harvey Oswald.

  2. Your interviews with James Douglas address the assassination question pretty well. Even if Douglas did not get every single detail correct, his thesis is pretty irrefutable. Douglas says what Kinzer, Dallek, and Sachs imply but won’t say because they don’t want to put themselves into the ‘conspiracy theorist’ camp. their reticence is understandable but sad for those who care about the truth.

  3. Kinzer´s outline of US foreign policy during the years when we thought it had to do with ideology but really had to do with saving big business clients of the Dulles brother´s Cromwell and Sullivan law firm from headaches abroad, leads me to think that Kennedy saw, as Eisenhower had, that the military-industrial complex determined all the threats to peace…It was always about money and business. I live abroad, and though I don´t have my finger on the pulse of anything, my guess is that the myth does not endure as much as some Americans think. My intuition is that it had a lot to do with good looks and charm. Visual glamour and a sense of style.

  4. I am circling this discussion back to a lively one on Gerald Posner’s Facebook timeline. Posner’s Case Closed on JFK’s assassination is considered by many to have been the definitive book putting the second shooter theories to rest.

    In the thread referenced below, there is a lively discussion about how the release of the fatal frames of the Zapruder film that fanned distracting Grassy Knoll theories. Even Poser belies a misunderstanding of the physics in the gruesome second during which JFK’s head appears to explode.

    Posner is currently now writing a book on Vatican finances. I hope Christopher will have him as a guest on WBUR some Thursday night in ’14, and I hope to meet both F2F next year as well.

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