A Personal Introduction: Overthrown in 1917 and Born in 1917
As a seven year old child I remember my father telling me to go to my neighbour’s to watch television (we did not have a television), to watch something ‘very important’. It was the funeral of the President of the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I am surely far from being the only person in the world who has met people who as adults knew both Tsar Nicholas II and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Though certainly, I am the only person from the city where I was born to have done so and probably the only Russian Orthodox priest in the world to have done so.
Still, it is a curious fact that JFK was born in 1917, the year that Tsar Nicholas was deposed by Russian traitors, financed mainly from London and New York. Much more significantly, both their deaths have fascinated generations and spawned a mass of conspiracy theories and black and white ideologies. Most notably, many books of suppositional history have been written about them both, about ‘what might have been’ and ‘Suppose if…’. Could what might have been find its fulfilment? That is our question.
Russia and America
There are people who see everything in terms of black and white. For example, in the Russian context, there are those who declare that everything in Russia was perfect before 1917 and everything was bad after it. Of course, a little logic such as: ‘If everything was so perfect, why was there a Revolution?’ would help such people. Alternatively, read a Russian novel from before 1917, or a newspaper from the period, or else, as was still just possible only a generation or two ago, you could have talked to someone who had been adult in Russia before 1917. The fact is that black and white do not exist outside hell and heaven. This world is unremittingly grey – though, admittedly, there is a huge difference between light grey and dark grey.
The same is true in the American context of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. There are those who say that his 1963 murder (let us call it what it was) was a turning-point, that all was white before it and all was black after it, that he was basically a kind of martyr. I suspect that childhood nostalgia plays a part here in the views of now elderly people. Nostalgia is a funny thing, the sun always shone in childhood. It is called selective memory. We will briefly consider some of the issues below. As for the conspiracy theories as to who murdered Kennedy and why, there are hundreds of them. Of course, that does not mean that one of them is not true. God knows the Truth.
It was in Paris in 1996 that I met an American woman from a well-connected family in Massachusetts. She was then in her fifties. She told me that when she was eighteen, she had met JFK. The story she told me confirmed the stories about Kennedy’s weakness for ladies, including Marilyn Monroe. However, he also had great strengths. Let us recall at least a few more significant facts from the life of this man who promised so much, who was so charismatic and such a brilliant speaker, and was so cruelly murdered on 22 November 1963 at the age of 46.
Probably the most famous event in Kennedy’s Presidency is the so-called ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ of 1962, which should have been called the Turkish Missile Crisis. For once the U.S. had publicly promised never to invade Cuba again and secretly agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles from near Soviet borders in Turkey, placed there as a provocation by US hawks, the Ukrainian peasant-leader Khrushchov agreed to dismantle Soviet missile sites in Cuba, subject to UN inspections. Thanks in part to Kennedy’s humanity, the US had backed down, though the Soviet side, with no less humanity, had agreed not to make that climbdown public. The US had not lost face publicly and indeed there are still some naïve people who think that the ‘Cuban Crisis’ was an ‘American victory’! In any case, World War III had been averted and Kennedy was in part responsible for that.
As regards Latin America, in 1962, Kennedy had also had the wisdom to declare that: ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable’. He sought to contain Communism in Latin America by establishing the ‘Alliance for Progress’, which sent aid to some countries and sought greater human rights standards in the region.
Regarding Vietnam, in April 1963 Kennedy said prophetically: ‘We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point’. Though Kennedy’s Vietnam policies seem inconsistent, nevertheless the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, stated that Kennedy was strongly considering pulling the United States out of Vietnam after the 1964 election. (McNamara also much too late declared that Vietnam had been a mistake and that he had known it all along and should have gotten out in 1963, when fewer than 100 Americans had been killed). Certainly, Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated 11 October, which ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1964 and the bulk of them by 1965. Indeed, Kennedy had been moving in this peaceful direction since his speech on world peace on 10 June 1963.
Israeli interests were also countered by Kennedy’s endorsement of the United Nation’s Johnson Plan, which wanted to return a number of expelled Palestinians from the war of 1948 into what was by then Israel. This continuation of the justice plan of the CIA-assassinated UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold for Palestinian repatriation disturbed those who had a negative view of Arab resettlement in their own country, let alone full repatriation.
Views of JFK
In general, it seems to us that Kennedy expressed the more collective values of Roman Catholicism over the individualism of Protestantism. This sense of solidarity with the rest of the world and collective responsibility for it, which comes from the Catholicity of the Church, was at his time still present in Roman Catholicism, part of its legacy from Orthodoxy. It is sad that after him the US elite lapsed into an individualistic, not to say a thoroughly sectarian, view of the world. It started in Vietnam and has since gone through Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and in 2014 reached the Ukraine.
Regardless of the many academic and conspiratorial debates around Kennedy and regardless of whether the great hopes placed in him were realistic, there is no doubt that he was the great hope of a great many in the Western world. It may not be the real Kennedy who is admirable, but rather his spirit and the hope inspired by his spirit. Under Kennedy there could have been Another America and so quite another course of world history over the last sixty years. The fact is that after his murder, the nightmare of the 1960s began, as recalled in the nostalgic Don McLean song ‘American Pie’, and the Western world has not yet woken up from that nightmare.
Conclusion: Hope and Despair
Indeed, though the Western world now proclaims that it is ‘woke’, in reality it is even faster asleep in its delusions. True or false is not the point here. The fact is that it is the youthful and energetic Kennedy, whether his myth or his reality, who represented hope. As John Masefield, the elderly English Poet Laureate of the time, wrote after Kennedy’s murder:
All generous hearts lament the leader killed
The young chief with the smile, the radiant face,
The winning way that turned a wondrous race
Into sublimest pathways, leading on.
Grant to us Life that though the man be gone
The promise of his spirit be fulfilled.
22 November 2023 is the 60th anniversary of JFK’s murder. How fine it would be if we felt that the promise of his spirit might be fulfilled. However, is that realistic?