What would President John F. Kennedy have thought about the enigmatic circumstances of his murder?
Fifty years later, I think we don’t ask this question often enough. Instead we argue about what Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly think. Media criticism is important, but it is no substitute for historical analysis. There are certainly other ways to think about the story.
Counterfactually, for example.
Imagine JFK had survived the gunfire in Dealey Plaza. What would he have said about its causes?
Kennedy, of course, did not have time to comment on the gunfire that claimed his life, other than to say, after a bullet struck him in the back, “My God, I’m hit.” But that exclamation illuminated his instantaneous awareness of a lethal situation. JFK had been a soldier/sailor in World War II. Twenty years before he had faced gunfire. He had seen men die from it. He knew that he had been shot. Before he could say anything more another bullet struck him in the head, fatally wounding him.
That was not inevitable.
There is a useful contemporary comparison. In August 1962, President Charles de Gaulle of France survived an attempted assassination by right-wing military officers opposed to his withdrawal from Algeria, a plot imaginatively depicted in the classic book and 1973 movie, “The Day of the Jackal.” If JFK had survived Dallas, he would have certainly tried, a la De Gaulle, to bring to justice those who wanted him dead.
Kennedy had a keen sense of the political forces opposed to his presidency. As a war veteran whose brother had died in combat, he also had a keen sense of the capriciousness of life’s tragedies.
One school of thought (about the only one that both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly belong to) holds that JFK, the skeptical, Ivy-League educated ironist, would have accepted the proposition that he had been struck down by a small man — “a fame junkie” in the words of Stephen King — a nobody, an isolated sociopath like John Hinckley and Arthur Bremer, a proverbial “lone nut.” JFK often alluded to the possibility of getting shot, and then (it is said) Lee Oswald did it for no discernible reason. In this view, JFK would have reached the same conclusion as the Warren Commission.
This feels ahistoric to me. JFK also loathed pat answers, complacent thinking and political illusions. JFK had no doubt that his enemies might resort to extra-constitutional measures to block his liberal policies. In the summer of 1962, he told his friend Red Fay that he believed a military coup was possible in America. In a relaxed moment, Kennedy told Fay the circumstances in which he thought it could happen.
If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment…
It was a revealing thought. After all, JFK was a young president and he had had a Bay of Pigs. Not long after he confided in Fay, he negotiated a peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, a decision opposed by all of his uniformed advisers. In Miami, his handling of the missile crisis was explicitly condemned as a second Bay of Pigs. In a 1995 book Cuban-American historian Enrique Ros, (father of Miami congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) dubbed the missile crisis, La Segunda Derrota, the second defeat.
Fay’s story has been cited by historian Arthur Schlesinger, and more recently by theologian James Douglass and journalist David Talbot, among others. There is no reason to doubt it and independent evidence that JFK worried about the possibility of a treasonous Pentagon power play.
He encouraged Hollywood friends to produce a movie version of the best-selling novel “Seven Days in May,” about a liberal president facing a rebellion from implacably anti-communist right-wing generals for his willingness to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, the Washington journalists who wrote the book, based their fictional villain on Gen. Curtis LeMay who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff under JFK and openly criticized his Cuba policy as dangerously weak. The movie was released in February 1964, three months after JFK was killed.
JFK’s understanding of Dallas would have also been informed not only by his tragic sense of history, but also by his dealings with the Pentagon. In the spring of 1963, JFK clashed with the the Joint Chiefs, which opposed his policy of fomenting a rebellion inside Cuba. The generals preferred “engineering an incident” to achieve the U.S. policy goals of overthrowing Castro.
As envisioned by the planners of Operation Northwoods, the top U.S. generals contemplated staging a great crime against a U.S target and deploying undercover CIA personnel to arrange for the blame to fall on the government or supporters of Fidel Castro, thus justifying a U.S. invasion. When Gen. Lemnitzer proposed “creating a plausible pretexts for using force,” JFK bluntly rejected the idea in a tense White House meeting in March 1962. (You can read a revealing account of the meeting here, courtesy of Mary Ferrell.org.)
Given this history, it seems willfully naive to assume that JFK would have automatically subscribed to the never-popular theory that he was attacked by a supporter of Fidel Castro. He would likely have considered the possibility that he was the target of an engineered provocation by enemies on the right seeking to reverse his accomodating policy toward Castro and justify the invasion they had long advocated.
In my view, he probably would have agreed with his widow and brother who concluded within a week of JFK’s death that he was the target of “domestic opponents.” Jackie and Bobby Kennedy’s conspiratorial interpretation of November 22 is not well known. It was first recounted in Timothy Naftali and Aleksander Fursenko’s 1999 book, “One Hell of a Gamble.” I consider this story especially credible because Naftali is NOT a JFK conspiracy theorist. He is the director of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Which more likely? Would JFK have agreed with J. Edgar Hoover, whom he loathed, and Allen Dulles, whom he fired, that Oswald acted alone? Or would he have agreed with his widow and brother that he was killed by enemies on the right?
Of course, the question cannot be answered definitively. Suffice it to say that JFK — the skeptical, Ivy League-educated empiricist — would have considered the question factually and realistically.