JFK – myth and reality
Beyond the speculation about who killed John F. Kennedy and the reasons behind his assassination 50 years ago today in Dallas, myths have endured about his supposedly liberal, even left-wing, views and policies. Oliver Stone’s film even suggests that’s why he was shot.
While the real truth behind the assassination remains elusive after a half a century – few accept that a lone gunman in the shape of Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible – it is possible to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Kennedy’s political life.
He was a conservative in social policy, a fervent anti-communist and a defender of America’s imperial power. In his early years in politics, Kennedy had a working relationship with the notorious Joseph McCarthy, whose witch-hunts divided America.
Kennedy had only been in power a few months when he authorised the previous administration’s plans for an invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The infamous Bay of Pigs operation was intended to overthrow Fidel Castro and reverse the Cuban revolution. As we know, it ended in fiasco and defeat. This did not deter Kennedy from other foreign adventures to stop “the spread of communism”.
Kennedy was the first president to send soldiers to Vietnam, 16,732 of them, supposedly as mere “advisers,” but many of them actually combatants. He was continuing a colonial war during which the French had been defeated. Kennedy had told the New York Times after the failure at the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall: “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”
Throughout 1963, the war in Vietnam was intensified to the point where Kennedy himself decided that South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem needed to be removed because he was seen as an impediment to winning the war. Kennedy authorised the coup that resulted in Diem's overthrow and assassination on 1 November 1963.
There have been attempts to distance Kennedy from the decision to remove Diem. But analysis of documents released by the National Security Archive in 2009 together with audiotapes, confirms that the decision to go for a coup involved the president and was not taken behind his back by officials and the CIA.
After Kennedy’s death, the war in Vietnam was stepped up to the point where 500,000 US soldiers were involved. Over 500,000 Vietnamese were killed, along with nearly 60,000 American soldiers. The United States pulled out in 1975 after defeat on the battlefield and the country was unified after North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon.
On domestic policy, Kennedy was a social conservative and lukewarm supporter of the civil rights movement. For example, he tried unsuccessfully to talk Martin Luther King out of his march on Washington in August 1963, which ended with a multi-racial rally of 250,000 demanding economic justice.
King held the crowd spellbound with his inspiring, momentous “I have a dream” speech about how “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’”.
He rebuked the country’s leaders for breaking the promises contained in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to guarantee the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
King was also gunned down, killed in Memphis where he was supporting a strike of low-paid municipal workers, in April 1968. Historically speaking, his loss to the American people has proved greater than that of a president who for all his charisma was a man who upheld the status quo.
22 November 2013