It was 50 years ago today, as the motorcade carrying JFK entered Dealey Plaza in Dallas, that the CIA, FBI, snipers from all three services plus the Marines, exiles from Cuba, Cubans from Cuba, the Mob, various Communists, LBJ supporters, the Secret Service, hundreds of unidentified people on the Grassy Knoll, and, oh yes, Lee Harvey Oswald opened fire and killed the 35th president of the United States. We know that this was so from the 40,000 volumes written about those events. We also know that a lot of guns jammed that day because, as it happened, only three shots were fired.
Does your Special Crikey 50th Anniversary correspondent remember where he was on that day? Sure. He was playing tennis at Allendale, 80k north of Adelaide. Such was the impact of the event that 20 Australians stopped playing sport and repaired to the nearest television. (The take-up rate for television in Allendale was high — of its four houses, one had a set.) What we saw remains with us.
What is less sure is what manner of man had been gunned down in Dallas. His inaugural speech (“ask not”, “pay any price, bear any burden”) types him as a Cold War Warrior. Recently, The New Yorker declared JFK an appeaser; The Guardian has described him as a conservative. Once more it’s left to Crikey to make the big call — when he died he was a man of the Left, so Left that had JFK entered NSW politics Albo would have been forced into the Keating/Kerry O’Brien faction.
But he didn’t start out on the Left. He campaigned on a non-existent missile gap with the Soviets and the alleged weakness of the Eisenhower administration on defence matters and won the presidency in 1960.
But he soon ran up against vested interests — all on the Right — which revealed a different president. US Steel and 11 other steel-makers defied JFK in 1962 and raised prices on the same day by the same amount. Kennedy denounced Big Steel on television, ordered a grand jury investigation into price-fixing, threatened to shift Pentagon procurement away from those companies and encouraged a congressional investigation into them. Three days later the price rises were reversed.
But it was the Bay of Pigs operation that was the turning point. He had inherited a mad plan from previous president Dwight Eisenhower for 1200 Cuban exiles to land and overthrow Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. The military and the CIA backed the plan, and Kennedy let it go ahead. It was a fiasco, which Kennedy then refused to bail out by committing US forces. He sacked the director of the CIA and never trusted the military again. Yet on no fewer than five occasions — at the Bay of Pigs, Laos 1961, Berlin 1961, Vietnam 1961 Cuba 1962, Vietnam 1963 — the military/CIA insisted that the only way out was to commit ground troops. In the light of recent events, we can only be astonished that JFK thwarted them on every occasion. What they got was neutralisation in Laos, a few advisers in Vietnam, nothing in the case of Berlin and a mixture of firmness and concession over Cuba.
Yet the pressure on him on these occasions was intense. In Berlin general Lucius Clay moved tanks forward to confront the wall-builders. Kennedy shouted down the phone to him to move them back. (JFK liked the Berlin Wall — it prevented tensions over refugees. No, Tony, Western Australia is too big.) The nadir was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. JFK was told by the joint chiefs of staff “we don’t have any choice except direct military reaction”. Kennedy faced down this pressure, thus preventing World War III, to which the chiefs seemed to be looking forward.
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The final affront from the military came over civil rights. Kennedy had been a late starter on this issue, but once more events had driven him leftward. He was shocked — as he should not have been — the brutal tactics to uphold segregation. The Civil Rights Bill followed — even though it alienated the Southern votes upon which Kennedy depended to get legislation through Congress. What also followed was his attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. An African-American student, James Meredith, had been accepted but was being blocked by local rednecks. Kennedy ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to assist Meredith’s enrolment. For four days the soldiers refused to move the 80 kilometres south. It took a direct order to their commander to get them there. By then four people had died in the rioting.
Given this history, it is barely conceivable that Kennedy would have got mired in Vietnam at the behest of the military. His last phone calls in November 1963 — this information not necessarily supplied by Edward Snowden — indicate that he was talking about when to leave, not whether to leave. Some 1000 men were to be sent back before Christmas. No ground troops had yet been committed.
In short, there seems no doubt that the Kennedy presidency was moving to the Left. How far it would have moved we can never be sure. But those of us at Allendale 50 years ago somehow sensed that a certain amount of promise died that day.
Hey, there is nothing about his womanising in this piece.